Since its invention more than 150 years ago, photography has revolutionized communication and has provided a technological method for the comprehensive documentation of social and physical landscapes. Since photographic images serve as immediate links to the past and transcend time and place, they provide a valuable visual record of the past century for scholars and non-academic users alike.
Due to photography’s usage as a primary source for pedagogy and research, archives, libraries, and museums holding historical photograph collections have a responsibility to manage them properly and make them available for generations to come. Until the advent of online collections, most historical collections of photography were difficult to access, but as photographic equipment and methods have evolved, so have photographic collections. The digitization of image collections has vastly increased the numbers of images available to researchers through electronic means. The phenomenal growth of digital information in cultural heritage institutions prompts an examination of the nature and importance of hybrid image collections, as technology changes the ways in which users access information and conduct research.
There is a continuing argument within memory institutions and photographic circles that nothing changes with regard to how users evaluate the relevance of a photograph, even if it no longer has a material existence but is stored as digital code. Users continue to view images, whether analog or digital, as indexical representations of the real. Others feel that digital images are pure abstractions with constitutive mutability and manipulation, and that without some physical link to their subjects, they are not ‘real’ photographs. The first approach emphasizes the continuity of the medium, based on the unchanging combination of photographer, camera, and subject. Those who see digitization as the end of photography wish to cling to the traditional, tangible imprint of reality; they blame digitization for the death of photography, for the end of the believability that photography holds as an index, rather than an icon or symbol.
How the nature of photography has changed as a result of digitization remains a matter of discussion. As Batchen (1999) notes:
A singular point of origin, a definitive meaning, a linear narrative: all of these traditional historical props are henceforth displaced from photography’s provenance. In their place we have discovered something far more provocative—a way of rethinking photography that persuasively accords with the medium’s undeniable conceptual, political, and historical complexity (202).
Whatever the conclusion to this debate, it seems clear that digital technology has thoroughly assimilated photography of all kinds, including image collections that will enter the archives, libraries, and museums hereafter. Lipkin (2005) notes that the future holds more questions than answers:
How will [technological] advances change our notion of what photography can or should be? What will happen as modeling software becomes increasingly capable of generating photo-realistic imagery that cannot be distinguished in any way from real life? The only thing we can be sure of is that the human desire to understand the world through representation will propel the process of making images through greater and greater changes in the years to come (10).
Although the fate of photography remains unknown, and technical, social, practical, and theoretical issues continue to emerge, there are several factors that information professionals can depend on as they look to the future of image management. Digital resources will increase significantly and information technology will change rapidly. Research trends will expand and scholars will continue to demand that collections be as inclusive as possible. Intellectual property rights management will also evolve as digital content replaces analog sources. Financial and human resources will be unable to keep pace with demand but should be allocated in the most cost-effective manner to achieve an acceptable balance between the quality of resources and the expenditure of time and money. The sustainability of collections will also continue to be an issue, as digitization is not just about the creation of images, but also about their maintenance and management. As a result of these developments, best practices for access, preservation, and management of image collections will transform as well.
Batchen, G. (1999). Burning with desire: The conception of photography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lipkin, J. (2005). Photography reborn: Image making in the digital era. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
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