Modes of Seeing: Case Studies on the Use of Digitized Photographic Archives

  1. 1. Paul Conway

    University of Michigan

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Digital humanities scholarship has expanded
beyond its deep foundations in text analysis
to find new meaning and knowledge through
the creative reuse of historical photographs and
other visual resources. Visual studies scholars in
the humanities who wish to work primarily in
the digital domain face a fundamental dilemma
in the choice either to create “purpose-built”
thematic collections tailored to specific studies
(Palmer, 2008) or to make use of collections
digitized for general purposes by an archives, a
library, or other cultural heritage organization.
“General-purpose” digital library collections
are simultaneously mechanisms for delivering
digital surrogates of archival holdings and new
archival collections in their own right that
reflect the decisions that digital curators make
throughout the digitization process (Ross, 2007;
Conway, 2008). The research issues associated
with the actual use in humanities contexts of
these large-scale general-purpose collections of
digital images are profound and as yet largely
unexplored (Saracevic, 2004). Concluding an
important study establishing a typology of use in
image retrieval, Graham (2004, p. 324) observes
that “these
do not tell us what was actually
done with the images once they had been found.”
This paper reports on a multi-case study of the
use of general purpose digitized photographic
archives. The paper’s title is a play on
John Berger’s somewhat forgotten pre-digital
argument in
Ways of Seeing
that reproductions
transform art (including of photographs and
other graphical materials) into information,
and in doing so expose original material
objects to new uses not imagined by either
the artist or, especially, the museums and
archives that collect these artifacts. “It is not
a question of reproduction failing to reproduce
certain aspects of an image faithfully; it is a
question of reproduction making it possible,
even inevitable, that an image will be used
for many different purposes and that the
reproduced image, unlike the original work, can
lend itself to them all” (Berger, 1972, p. 24).
In suggesting that the post-modern critique has
outlived its usefulness in the arena of visual
studies, Mitchell calls for moving beyond Walter
Benjamin’s skepticism of the reproduction by
embracing digital image surrogacy as superior.
“In a world where the very idea of the unique
original seems a merely nominal or legal
fiction, the copy has every chance of being
an improvement or enhancement of whatever
counts as the original” (Mitchell, 2003, p. 487).
Efforts to extract evidence and meaning from
the digitized photographic image extend well
beyond the disciplines of art and art history
to encompass history, a range of other social
sciences, and increasingly the humanities.
Humanists with a propensity toward visual
studies run the gamut from skepticism to
enthusiasm about the processes that digitally
transform the material properties of original
photographs and camera negatives. Koltun
(1999, p. 124) claims that a digitized photograph
“leaves behind another originating document
whose disposal or retention can inspire
other archival debates focused around original
attributes and meanings not ‘translated’ into,
even distorted by, the new medium.” Sassoon
(2004, p. 199) largely sees diminished meaning
(“an ephemeral ghost”) through digitization,
whereas Cameron (2007, p. 67) projects archival
properties onto the “historical digital object”
that are distinctive and original. Skeptics and
enthusiasts on both sides of this argument stake
their claims with little regard for the actual uses
of digitized historical photographs.
This paper exposes varying perspectives on
“modes of seeing” by synthesizing case studies
of seven deeply experienced researchers both
within and outside the academy, ranging from
scholars to serious avocational users to people
whose livelihood depends on finding and
using high quality representations of historical
photographs. The group of study participants is
broadly (but not statistically) representative of
the variety of sophisticated humanities-oriented
uses to which general purpose collections
are put. The participants in the seven case
studies vary widely in terms of demographic

characteristics. Three are female; four are male.
Their ages range from 30 to 67. The participants
work and live east of the Mississippi River
in five separate communities. Each case study
revolves around a specific tangible product that
was in some stage of completeness at the time
of the interviews. The form of the products
ranged from books and a dissertation, a complex
and dynamic website, to a database for a
membership organization. For their projects,
participants made use of digitized photographs
delivered from either the Library of Congress’s
American Memory collection or the online
catalog of the Prints and Photographs Division.
Each of the five collections consulted is discrete
within its particular delivery system. The Civil
War Photographs collection is available through
interfaces to both the American Memory and the
PPD databases. A 1872 Turkestan photographic
album and photographs from the National Child
Labor Committee are available in digital form
only through the online catalog. Portions of the
extensive Farm Security Administration/Office
of War Information collection are distributed
through the American Memory interface, but
the entire digitized collection is fully available
only through the online catalog. Finally, the
Bain photograph collection, including a sizable
sub-collection on American baseball, is fully
available digitally through the online catalog
and selectively through the American Memory
The paper frames the findings on the
use of digitized photographs in digital
humanities scholarship within new theoretical
perspectives on visual literacy (Elkins, 2008)
and remediation (Bolter and Grusin, 1996),
and the practical aspects of imaging for
humanities scholarship (Deegan and Tanner,
2002). The case studies are constructed using an
innovative multi-method qualitative approach
that encompasses archival research in photo
archives combined with a two-stage qualitative
investigation. Stage one gathers background
information and an assessment of expertise
from interview subjects. Stage two consists
of in-depth, semi-structured, in-situ interviews
and observations. A three-part “thinking out
loud” protocol extracts extensive commentary
on the nature of individual and community
expertise, on macro decision making strategies
for creating the research product, and the
character of micro-decisions on the choice and
use of individual photographs. The descriptive
evidence of “modes of seeing” is derived from
a “grounded theory” analysis of interview
Using extracted quotations and extensive
visual examples, the paper presents an
original typological model on the ways that
perspectives of users on visual content, archival
properties, and technical characteristics of
digitized photographic archives combine to
produce distinctive, but often intersecting
“modes of seeing.” One mode, “Discovering,”
takes maximum advantage of the visual detail
discernable in high-resolution digital copies of
camera negatives to find and contextualize new
knowledge. A second mode, “Storytelling,” has
a point of departure in the emotion evoked by
wholly composed photographic images, seeking
hidden narratives surrounding the subjects of
the images, much in the way that textual
archives yield their stories through the power of
provenance. A third mode, “Landscaping,” finds
meaning through the geospatial and temporal
contexts of the images and the circumstances
of their existence, sometimes providing a portal
on technologically mediated power relations.
All three modes carry either a “materialist” or
“anti-materialist” stance that circumscribes the
intimacy of original source and digital surrogate.
The two stances have much to say about trust,
integrity, and the archival nature of digital
collections for humanities scholarship.
The findings have at least three important
implications for the use of general purpose
collections of digitized photographs in a
digital humanities context. First, the study
demonstrates the relationship between the
technical characteristics of digitally transformed
photographs and the construction of visual
narrative. Second, the study exposes how
hidden archival properties embedded in the
transformed archival photographic record
create the context of use for scholars who
privilege digital surrogacy over the material
nature of original sources. Third, the study’s
model of “modes of seeing” diversifies our
understanding of how humanists interpret the
visual order on, beneath, and beyond the visual
plane of the photographic object.
This work was supported by the U. S.
National Science Foundation [IIS-0733279].

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

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Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None