Materiality and Metadata of Digitised Photographs: A Theoretical Inquiry

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Vinayak Das Gupta

    Maynooth University (National University of Ireland, Maynooth)

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This paper suggests a separation between the content, the carrier, and the presentational forms of the digitised photograph (as opposed to a born-digital image) and presents the draft for a metadata schema that is able to record the circulation of the object. The arguments presented in this paper are adapted from the research conducted for a recently-submitted doctoral thesis. Thesis titled ‘From Evidence to Essence: Curating Thematic Collections with Photographs from the British Raj’ submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Ph.D to Trinity College Dublin on 30th September 2015.
Scholarly study of the photographic image, specifically with the ‘material turn’ in anthropology and cultural studies, Material cultural analysis, from an anthropological position, questions the assumed superiority of language over other forms of expression (Miller, 1987). has attempted to inspect the photograph as a physical object (Batchen, 1997, Edwards, 2002, Edwards and Hart, 2004). This process of inspection expresses the complexity of the social existence of objects and allows the investigation of the photograph as a material object whose understanding is augmented by its form. Photographs have specific modes of circulation, production, and consumption, and their inspection has potential beyond the critiques of representation alone. John Tagg (1988) discusses the manner in which the currency and the value of material objects arise in certain distinct and historically specific social practices. The inherent bias of the indexical qualities of the image over its material properties may overlook the social and cultural contexts within which the photograph is born and used. While current digitisation techniques have found accurate methods of copying the content image, the description of its materiality remains a challenge. If the physicality of the photograph is central to its understanding, this paper inspects the possibilities of providing the digital referent with the material information. It presents an examination of both the materiality of the photographic image (and its transformation into a digital object), and the means through which the presentational forms of the original may be inscribed in the digital referent.
The digitised photograph is a material object: to observe this materiality, a separation between the content and the carrier of the object is required. The photographic image is printed on paper, and this paper is the carrier of the content image. Similarly, the content of the book is carried in the physical form of the book — the paper, glue, and ink that hold it together. In the physical object (as opposed to its digital counterpart) the content and the carrier are closely inter-linked to the point where their separation is difficult. However, the carrier may change at different moments of time, which may provide the object with different contexts: consider an image that was first printed on photographic paper, then printed in a newspaper, and then, perhaps, in a book. The different material existences of the image provide contexts that locate it within different points in history. The digital object is, similarly, carried by electronic circuits. That the digital object has materiality, then, is undeniable. The problem, perhaps, in identifying this materiality lies in the degrees of separation between the circuits and the perception of the object. To view an electronic image, a screen — an enabler — is required. The experience of the object then is governed by an intermediary system. The dislocation between the carrier of the object and the experience of the object is perhaps the source of a material fallacy. Joanna Sassoon (2004) presents an engaging examination of the materiality of digital photographs. However, the central rationale in her paper takes premise on the assumption that digital objects have no material existence. If it is acceptable to think of this separation between the content and the carrier, it is possible to argue that the digital object is merely one iteration of a different carrier. The digitised image, then, is the original image, in a new material form.
The photograph has multiple lives; it exists within socio-cultural contexts, and to understand it, the content image must be seen in conjunction with its material form. Since the inception of photography, photographic images have been used in a variety of contexts, and have been presented in a multitude of ways; the carrier often determines the use the content image is put to. Whether preserved in photo-albums (arranged thematically or sequentially), sold as postcards for the curious, or published as documentary evidence the presentational form of the photograph weighs heavy on the readings of the image. Presentational forms, in particular, guide the way in which photographs were used after their inception, and also the way they were understood. It is, here, important to distinguish between the carrier and the presentational form: the carrier is always material, while the presentational form is ideological. The materiality guides the technical production of the image, and bears the imprint of time on it. The presentational form reveals the social, political, cultural, and religious contexts within which the photograph is used. A similar concern may be seen in the area of textual editing with concerns about the primacy of the document over the text. For further reading see, for instance, Hans Walter Gabler’s ‘The Primacy of the Document in Editing’ (2007).
This paper proposes to include the material specifics of the physical photograph at the level of the metadata of the digitised image. Metadata schemata for visual resources, such as CDWA and VRA Core, articulate the description of objects by distinguishing between Work and Image. VRA Core 4, in fact, is built around three record types — Work, Image, and Collection. This separation attempts to describe the complex relationship between the original and the surrogate. In a similar vein, this paper suggests a separation between the content, the carrier, and the presentational form of the photograph in its descriptive schema. For photographic images, it is more important to record its material transformations than separate the original from the copy. Walter Benjamin in his seminal essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ contends that for photographs, asking for the mechanically produced, original print is non-sensical. While the content image remains the same, different material specifics of the photograph change as the object adopts new carriers and new presentational forms. The proposed schema is able to record multiple carriers and presentational forms for the same photographic object. This would, potentially, help to examine the circulation of the photographic object — a key concern of scholarly research in the field. This schema also presents the possibility of being extended to a linked data format that multiple curators can add to in order to articulate information about the same object. The paper presents a blueprint for the proposed schema — the structural and the functional aspects of its design.

Batchen, G. (1997).
Photography's Objects. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Art Museum.

Benjamin, W. (1969). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In Arendt, H. (ed.), Zohn, H. (tr.),
Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, New York: Schocken, pp. 224.

Das Gupta, V. (2015). From Evidence to Essence: Curating Thematic Collections with Photographs from the British Raj. Ph.D. thesis, Trinity College Dublin.

Edwards, E. (2002). Material beings: objecthood and ethnographic photographs.
Visual Studies, 17(1): 67-75.

Edwards, E. and Hart, J. (2004). Photographs as Objects. In Edwards, E. and Hart, J. (eds.),
Photographs Objects Histories, London and New York: Routledge.

Gabler, H. W. (2007). The Primacy of the Document in Editing. Ecdotica 4: 197-207.

Miller, D. (1987).
Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, pp. 9.

Sassoon, J. (2004). Photographic materiality in the age of digital reproduction. In Edwards E. and Hart, J. (eds.),
Photographs Objects Histories, London and New York: Routledge.

Tagg, J. (1988).
The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2016
"Digital Identities: the Past and the Future"

Hosted at Jagiellonian University, Pedagogical University of Krakow

Kraków, Poland

July 11, 2016 - July 16, 2016

454 works by 1072 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (11)

Organizers: ADHO