The Picture Edge: Archival Appraisal of Photographs

In The Photographer’s Eye, historian John Szarkowski (1966) writes, “The central act of photography, the act of choosing and eliminating, forces a concentration on the picture edge—the line that separates in from out.” The SAA Task Force on Goals and Priorities (1986) notes that archival appraisal, the choosing and eliminating of records of enduring value, “is the archivist’s first responsibility. All other archival activities hinge on the ability to select wisely” (8). Appraisal of photographs and other visual materials, however, have remained on the picture edge—the “margins of archivy”—because “the inherent subjectivity of appraisal is exacerbated by the emotional, impulsive qualities of photographs” (Schwartz 2002, 144; Ballard and Teakle 1991, 43). To preserve the usefulness and authenticity of photography’s complex, versatile form of documentary evidence, archivists must examine its values and criteria, considering the medium’s unique attributes while being mindful of universal archival concerns.

Definition of Appraisal

Appraisal identifies materials offered to an archives that have “sufficient value to be accessioned,” depending on the “records’ provenance and content, their authenticity and reliability, their order and completeness, their condition and costs to preserve them, and their intrinsic value” (Pearce-Moses 2005). Appraisal is “the intellectual activity of weighing the relative value of records to decide which ones may be destroyed and why, and which ones must be kept and why,” serving the research interests of the community over time (Craig 2004, 2). Appraisal evaluates what can be successfully preserved and made accessible, balancing a collection’s enduring values and usefulness against care and management costs (Vogt-O’Connor 2006).

Because the significance of archival records cannot be determined from a preliminary assessment, appraisal is usually conducted after acquisition. Appraisal requires careful deliberation, since decisions not to save unique documents are irrevocable. Selection is especially important for photographic collections, because while the costs of maintaining archives in any format are expensive, the costs related to nontextual formats are even more so (Boles 2005).

Photographic Appraisal

The appraisal of photographs depends on a number of factors, the most important being the organization’s mission statement, acquisition criteria, and collecting strategies. For significant image collections, specific collecting policies for images may also be needed (Vogt-O’Connor 2006). Appraisal policies for photographs “should be flexible enough to accommodate changing definitions of historical value” and “encourage greater consistency, and ensure rationalization and accountability” (Ballard and Teakle 1991, 43-44).

During appraisal, Ham (1993) notes five key aspects of records to be evaluated, including the analysis of context (the evidential value) and content (the informational value). Functional analysis is the importance of the original purpose of the records, including the significance of the records creator, the creator’s functions, and the records themselves. Use analysis is the value of records in meeting the information needs and interests of the repository’s clientele. Cost-benefit analysis weighs the value of information in the records against the expenditures of preservation, including staff time and facilities required for accessioning, processing, conservation, and storage.

To determine whether photographic accessions meet the institutions’ appraisal criteria, Ericson (1991) suggests that archivists ask “Why should I save this?” and “Why should I save this?” (68). While the first question addresses the value of an item as evidence, the second queries the appropriateness of an item for a particular collection. That the material is worth preserving is not enough, it must also meet the goals of the archives (Greene 1998).

Photograph acquisitions should not only be relevant to the institution, but they should also have strong documentation and chain of custody, the legal and physical ownership of records that proves their authenticity. They should display a depth of subject matter, genres, and formats and be in reasonable condition and quantity (Vogt-O’Connor 2006). Thoughtful consideration should be given to photographs without captions or provenance; duplicated elsewhere; in need of significant preservation, research, or arrangement to be useful; have permanent access or usage restrictions; or are too costly to acquire or manage (Vogt-O’Connor 2006). After selection, the result should be a high quality, “discrete, cohesive, and hopefully unique collection” that fulfills the research needs of the institution’s users (Murphy 2003, 155).

During appraisal, archivists must “assume a role more active than that of passive presenter and processor of [visual] documents” (Mifflin 2007, 33). Images are more challenging to appraise than textual documents because they are not self-identifying, bearing “their meaning not in natural language, but in the arrangement of their colors, shapes, textures, dimensions—in short, their physical and visual attributes” (Woll 2005, 20). Burgin (1982) writes, “the intelligibility of the photograph is no simple thing; photographs are texts inscribed in terms of what we may call ‘photographic discourse’” (144).

Archivists have examined this discourse, switching from acquiring photographs from the first fifty years of its invention to selecting only a fraction of photographs in the age of abundance. Leary (1985) writes:

Photo archivists have developed an unusually strong impulse to avoid thinking about the need for selection. After all, we have told each other, the most urgent task is to save what remains of the early photographic legacy, a task which many institutions ignored until recently. The salvage of nineteenth-century photography will remain an important responsibility of photo archives for the foreseeable future. Increasingly, however, the enormous bulk of twentieth-century photography will force photo archivists to confront the necessity of appraisal.

Digital images have added to the urgent need for selection, because they “are not only voluminous and highly fugitive, but also demanding of tailored visual, rather than hand-me-down textual approaches” (Schwartz 2004, 109). Bartlett (1996) comments on the changing attitudes of photographic appraisal, noting that appraisal of analog images seemed “more static, measurable, and relatively easy to detect” than digital images. “Rather than simply invalidate photographic media as now archivally suspect, [archivists] should instead attempt to assess all photographic media, past and present, with a greater sensitivity to their inherently transitory and multiple qualities” (488). While electronic records have increased the necessity of selection, archivists have always wrestled with photographic appraisal. As early as 1979, Taylor noted the archival neglect of photographs when he wrote, “non-textual material showed little evidence of a time series and obstinately resisted an original order between inclusive dates,” and, therefore, “photographs were long ignored as records in the archival sense” (419). Schlak (2008) asserts that archivists have uncritically applied textual models to visual materials, because they have not developed their own image selection standards.

Given the ubiquity of images in modern life and the apparent lamentable lack of visual literacy among archivists and librarians, it is not difficult to understand why little effort is made to reconsider the photograph as an entity at once more and less than the historical content it purports to represent (86).

Appraisal of photographs has been “based primarily on their content and artistic merit,” not the sophisticated reading needed to assess their complex connotations (Boles 2005, 132).


These multifarious meanings have fueled postmodern discussions of the authenticity of visual evidence. Since its invention, photography was thought to offer “an immediate, faithful and permanent record” documenting “the mundane, the trivial, the everyday texture of life so often ignored by more traditional records” (Brown 1971, 32; Leary 1985). “The visceral appeal of looking at people from the recent or remote past was powerful, and photographic records seemed more immediate—more ‘true’ somehow—than secondary descriptions” (O’Toole and Cox 2006, 30). Humphreys (1993) notes that:

photography has been a focal point for concerns about the nature of subjectivity,   authenticity, and representation itself…photographic accuracy, with its emphasis on the copy and the reproduction…promised to make concepts of the genuine obsolete and to   devalue, both economically and symbolically, the original” (686).

However, photographs are no longer regarded as “truth-telling artifacts,” nor “a literal rendering of reality (a reproduction) but is an interpretation—a construction” (Mifflin 2007, 34; Ballard and Teakle 1991, 44). Neither were photographs a “facsimile of a total reality at some moment in time…only a partial reflection” (Huyda 1977, 11). Vogt-O’Connor (2006) writes:

Photographs are expressive and subjective documents whose content is selected to omit    most of the visual world, framed in a camera viewfinder, focused to the photographer’s interest, captured by a certain shutter speed, and recorded upon media that have speed limitations and certain color and tonality biases. Photographers may manipulate their images in the darkroom by airbrushing, cropping, dodging and burning, enlarging, hand-coloring, and retouching them to make the reality reflected in the image better fit the photographer’s or client’s wishes (97).

Stated another way, “the convergence of photographer, subject, camera, and other variables, such as who is or isn’t present, and the authority or influence they have” provides a restricted view of reality that must be examined in the appraisal process (Mifflin 2007, 34). 

The validity of photographic records is further eroded by their different treatment from traditional textual records, which has destroyed their provenance and original order, two fundamental principles of archives (Boles 2005). Provenance is information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection; records of the same origin should be kept together to preserve their context. Original order is the organization of records established by their creator. Maintaining records in original order preserves existing relationships and evidential significance that can be inferred from the records’ context. Photographs are often segregated from their originating records at acquisition, with arrangement and description being performed independently. Due to their chemical components, they may be stored in different environmental conditions. In large repositories, photographs are often managed by different staff and made available in a separate reading room. The separation of photographs from their original order and provenance makes their value as documentary evidence secondary to their aesthetic appeal.

Aesthetic Values

Cook (1980) believes that this separation and special treatment of photographs reduces archivists to curators, judging artistic merit over traditional archival values. Schwartz (1995) counters:

The pejorative tone attached to the term “curator” usually derives from the erroneous assumption that a photo-archivist is motivated by the same concerns as the curator, namely artistic merit or connoisseurship. But aesthetic considerations are a minor element of the archival appraisal of photographs…Just as good grammar assists verbal communication and standardizes comprehension, aesthetic quality aids visual communication (56).

Boles (2005) writes, “many archivists likely have preserved images simply for their artistic merit. Artistic merit does matter” (133). To fulfill their historical research potential and to be reproducible for articles, publications, and exhibits, photographs should have “proper focus to render detail, exposure that preserves the full range of tonal contrast, clarity, satisfactory composition and be in good physical condition”—in short, be aesthetically appealing (Ballard and Teakle 199, 47). Szarkowski (1966) notes that a photograph’s aesthetics are derived from the interaction between “the thing itself” (the subject), the detail, the frame, time, and the vantage point. While these artistic characteristics contribute to composition, photographs used in historical research were taken and preserved for more prosaic reasons than art.

Evidential and Informational Values

Fraser (1981) notes that generally “photographs are not acquired and retained for their aesthetic value or intellectual content, but are expected to serve some useful purpose” (139). Among those most valuable to scholars are photographs that document people, places, things, and events for the purposes of reporting news, encouraging reform, advertising a product or service, promoting a government program, explaining a scientific or industrial process, or illustrating an idea. What is more significant than a photograph’s aesthetics, especially during appraisal, are the image’s evidential and informational values as confirmation of its creator’s activities and its subjects.

Regarding archival appraisal, Schellenberg (1965) distinguishes between primary and secondary values. Primary values are those immediate to the creation of the record, its original administrative, legal, or fiscal purpose for its creators. After their first purpose, records can also acquire secondary values for historical research—their evidential and informational values, which are not mutually exclusive. Evidential values reflect the importance of records as evidence of the organization, its functions, its policies, and the operations of the records creator, for accountability and historical purposes rather than legal purposes. Informational value relates to any other uses of records for documentation of society or historical information, providing unique and permanent information for the purposes of research.

Traditionally, photographs have been generally valued for their informational content. Schellenberg (1965) writes:

Information on the provenance of pictorial records within some government agency, corporate body, or person is relatively unimportant, for such records do not derive much of their meaning from their organizational origins…Information on the functional origins of pictorial records is also relatively unimportant (325).  

Leary (1985) continues, asserting that photographs:

possess minimal evidential value. Frequently, photographs provide some evidence of an organization’s operation, but written records are almost always a better source of essential evidential values…Photographs that show official activities and nothing else are likely to be very boring and insignificant images.

Charbonneau (2005) agrees, noting that photographs require different appraisal models than textual records:

Photographs are distinct from textual documents in that their most important value is informational. This means that archivists cannot resort to their traditional methods when beginning an appraisal for the selection of photographs; that is to say the assessment of the evidential value of the documents which reflects their bond with the creator of the fonds (120).

The prevalent notion that photographs can only be appraised for their informational values may have developed because their evidential values have been obscured, weakened, or destroyed during acquisition and processing. When archivists remove photographs from their provenance and original order, the informational value is the only quality that remains intact.

Evidential values are derived from the context of creation, original and subsequent use, preservation history, authorship, purpose, message, and audience. In order to understand evidential values, archivists must “abandon their faith in the function of the photographic document as a truthful representation of material reality and cease to equate archival value with image content” (Schwartz 1995, 46). Further, “by embracing a textual model of recorded information...archives continue to fixate on the factual content rather than the functional origins of visual images” (Schwartz 2002, 143). Ballard and Teakle (1991) note that the interpretation of photographs engages archivists at a “complex cogitative level that is culturally based. The aim is to recognize the original intention of the photograph—its particular cultural use by particular people. This is rarely given within the picture but is developed in its function or context” (44). Photographs with “intact original arrangement by the creator are useful as they allow repository staff to infer information from the context and to assume the authenticity and judge the reliability of the accession” (Vogt-O’Connor 2006, 78). Kaplan and Mifflin (2000) add, “photographer’s notes and other complimentary sources should be sought out, preserved, and made available” (121). Schwartz (1995) asserts, “archival value in photographs resides in the interrelationship between photographs and the creating structures, animating functions, programmes and information technology that created them” (50). Sassoon (2007) affirms:

Photographs are complex, multilayered objects whose archival values derive from series of interrelationships between photographs and other archival formats, and the dynamics between what is visible and what is invisible. What is invisible are the ephemeral, provenance-based relationships from which archives in original order gain their authenticity, and where viewing serial relationships provides evidence of the broader warps and wefts which are inaccessible when seeing a single thread (139).

Unfortunately, these interrelationships are often lost during preservation, because evidential value is:

embedded in the physical structure of the album, its sequence of pages, the placement of images, the juxtaposition of words and images, and the larger documentary universe of which it is a part is sacrificed in a misguided effort to ensure the long-term physical stability of individual photographs. The meaning of the album, not simply as a housing for the images, but as a document in its own right, and the information it was compiled to communicate is lost (Schwartz 2002, 157).

Additionally, digitization may also obliterate evidential value. Westney (2007) warns, “the major risk posed by digital surrogates is the loss of evidential value due to the destruction of evidence as to the context and circumstances of their origin” (7). Sassoon (2007) continues:

Seduced by both the subject content and visual qualities of photographic archives, and the ease of access that digitisation technology affords, archivists are overseeing the erosion of the transactional nature of records and core principles of archival practice...What has emerged in this new electronic environment is a digital domain with orphans of archivists’ own creation. What have been liberated through technology in the 21st century are archival principles (139).

Viewing photographs with their archival principles of provenance and original order intact makes determining evidential values possible, providing “a hedge against error, discouraging the superimposition of meanings” (Mifflin 2007, 34).

Photographic Relationships

Bearman (1995) suggests that the context for photographs should be examined through their relationships with information categories. These categories include the object “in itself,” in time (its creator, collection, ownership, and collecting history), in place (its association with people, events, and locations), within the realm of ideas (its subject, association with other categories, and its embodiment of abstract ideas), and as part of a whole. While he discusses how these attributes of cultural heritage objects can be described using Categories for the Description of Works of Art, the photograph’s relationships may also be examined to determine values for appraisal. Bearman (1995) concludes, “Because documentation is frequently not explicit about relationships that are evident from the context in which they are may be necessary to analyze source materials to expose these relationships” (298).

Schwartz (1995) stresses that the study of a photograph must take into account the “terms of its relationships with the persons concurring in its formation” who created “mediated representation of reality; the product of a series of decisions; created by a will, for a purpose, to convey a message to an audience” (55). Diplomatics is “the study of the creation, form, and transmission of records, and their relationship to the facts represented in them and to their creator, in order to identify, evaluate, and commutate their nature and authenticity” through “refined notions of what constitutes authority, authenticity, purpose, and the extrinsic and intrinsic elements” of the record (Pearce-Moses 2005; Barlett 1996, 488). Diplomatics applied to historical photographs may “provide elasticity as well as rigor to both professional research and application by archivists” (Bartlett 1996, 486). Employed in appraisal, diplomatics encourages the identification of context, authorship, intentionality, and audience, since “rules of cultural and technical production do govern their creation” (Schwartz 1995, 57). By shifting from the content to the context of the photograph, “diplomatics has the potential to shed new light on both informational and evidential value and thus increase visual literacy” (Schwartz 1995, 42). Additionally, a photograph’s physical form helps convey its message; for instance, the stereograph’s format “determined the circumstances and way in which the image was viewed” (Schwartz 1995, 58). Image formats, photographic processes, and sizes convey meanings that should be considered during appraisal.

Intrinsic and Artifactual Values

Beyond evidential and informational values, intrinsic and artifactual values should also be appraised. Intrinsic value is the significance of an item derived from its physical or associational qualities (based on its relationship to an individual, family, organization, place, or event), inherent in its original form and generally independent of its informational or evidential value. Artifactual value is the significance of an item based on its physical or aesthetic characteristics, rather than its intellectual content. Records with intrinsic value have qualities that make their original physical form “the only archivally acceptable form for preservation” (Westney 2007, 6). These characteristics may include aesthetic quality, content, usage, market value, unique physical features, age, or scarcity. Vogt-O’Connor (2006) writes that images with strong artifactual and informational or evidential values are:

by far the most heavily used images in most repositories. High artifactual value is what historians, teachers, and students, as well as curators, designers, exhibit curators, filmmakers, publishers, and web designers, look for in photographs, particularly for images to reproduce, exhibit, or publish (126).

Intrinsic and artifactual values determine whether photographs should receive conservation treatment in their original format or should be reformatted as a copy, and if special security or access protections are needed (Vogt-O’Connor 2006).

Photographic Appraisal Criteria

In reviewing the pertinent criteria for the appraisal of photographs, Charbonneau (2005) determines that subject, quality, age, originality, documentation, aesthetics, and accessibility affect appraisal decisions. User needs and the intentions of the participants in the creation of photographs also contribute to the appraisal process. Participants include the photographer, the individual or group photographed, the customer or sponsor of the photography shoot, the technician, and the individual who gathers and documents the photographs. In his experience as director of the Centre d’archives de Montréal, Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec, Charbonneau notes that users of photographic archives are not interested in evidential value, but “look for specific information. If by chance they are curious about a photograph’s provenance (in order to include it in the reference for a picture), they are rarely particularly interested in the context in which it was created” (121).

The Australian Archives has also developed specific criteria for photographic appraisal, which includes research value, cost, identifying information, quality, and quantity (Ballard and Teakle 1991). Research value usually depends upon the subject of the record, which is elevated if the subject is “essential to the interpretation or understanding of related records which have been appraised as having long-term value or has a high intrinsic value” (45). Subjects that influence research value include people, work, and social activities; objects; and natural phenomena; as well as known or important photographers. Cost also affects appraisal, with research value balanced against preservation expenses. Identifying information encompasses subjects, dates, locations, individual names, and photographers; provenance often supplements missing information. Quality highlights the photograph’s evidential, informational, aesthetic, intrinsic, and artifactual values, while quantity refers to uniqueness of the subjects depicted.

Appraisal criteria can be applied not only during acquisition, but also throughout the photograph’s lifecycle. New York Public Library’s Picture Collection is the largest collection of images held at a public library in the world, with user requests primarily based on subject. Selecting only 15% of the collection to be digitized, the library’s criteria incorporated local interests, collection strengths, educational purposes, and how the project would complement further developments of the physical and virtual collections (Chen 2004). Appraising photographs in this manner resulted in a 30,000-item digital collection that supplemented the physical collection and reached an international community.

Moving from the Edge to the Center

John Szarkowski, quoted in Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977), states “Photography is a system of visual editing…It is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite” (192). Archival appraisal, like photography, is a skilled process of selecting among an almost unlimited number of records to preserve. The identification of archival values, the establishment of criteria, and the development of appraisal tools occur with all record formats, but are especially important for photographs, which have traditionally been marginalized in archives. To preserve photographic evidence, archivists must reposition themselves from the picture edge to its center, focusing on archival values, appraisal criteria, and institutional mandates, while responding to their users’ pursuit of knowledge.

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