The Changing Role of Photographic Collections With the Advent of Digitization

Howard Besser
School of Information & Systems
University of California at Berkeley

[to appear in Katherine Jones-Garmil (ed.), The Wired Museum, Washington: American Association of Museums, 1997]

Digital images are becoming more and more commonplace. Vendors offering "stock house" services for digital versions of photographs have cleared the rights for hundreds of millions of these, and more than a handful of these vendors are currently delivering digital images to clients. Tens of thousands of WorldWide Web sites regularly display digital images to the general public. Some of the most popular sections of services like America Online and Compuserve are collections of digital images from cultural repositories such as the Smithsonian.

The implementation of digital systems to view surrogates of photographic images housed in museums, archives, and libraries will have a significant effect on those collections and their use. How this is likely to help preserve delicate collections and increase public access has been explained elsewhere (Besser 1990; Besser 1991), as has the likely effect on various museum departments (Besser 1987). Major issues surrounding increased access and its effect on scholars, the public, and the museum and its staff will be outlined below.

In this chapter the author hypothesizes about potential effects of widespread photographic digitization on the museum, on scholarly research, and on the general public. He explores areas like the possible erosion of authority of the museum and its curators as more and more people access representations of museum objects without entering the site of the museum itself. He identifies critical issues that will emerge concerning authorship and authenticity. He also begins to examine issues related to the commodification of images.

A World of Networked Digital Information

The world we live in is rapidly being transformed by the proliferation of information resources available through new distribution channels. Just as the dissemination of videotaped films drastically altered the way people consume one form of culture (leading individuals to new habits of viewing in private spaces and at times of their own choosing, closing movie theaters, and significantly altering the economics of the entertainment industry), the dissemination of networked digital information is likely to promote revolutionary changes in both institutions and in personal habits for relating to other forms of culture and scholarship.

As digital representations of photographic images proliferate, we can expect to see sweeping changes in public response to photographic images and the institutions that house them, and in the role of caretakers and interpreters of these image collections.

Digital Photographs are Peculiar Items

Traditionally photographs have been tangible items. They have a physical dimension, and we can assert ownership by means of possession. We can hold them in our hands and look at them without any external aids (other than ordinary light). In contrast, digital photographs have no physical aspect to them (other than megabytes). We cannot look at them without the aid of relatively complex external viewers.

Photography has always appeared to be different from previous art forms because multiple photographic prints may be made from a single negative (giving many people the impression that these prints are identical to one another). Yet there is an artistry involved in creating photographic prints from negatives, and those involved with art photography recognize that two photographic prints from the same negative are seldom identical.

But digital photographs can be quickly and easily copied, and each copy can be absolutely identical to all the others. (In fact, reproduction of digital photography produces far more consistent copies than the manufacturing of dolls, cars, or other types of commodities.) Due to the ease of mass production, the concept of physical ownership of a digital photograph becomes subordinate to that of ownership of the intellectual property rights to duplicate that photograph.

How does the lack of tangibility affect how people relate to digital photographs? In the near future we will see a substitute physicality, as individuals will be able to hold up a CD ROM and claim that they actually possess images that are contained on it (even if they can't see the images without a viewing machine). But, as we move more towards networked access to images, even this substitute physicality may disappear.

Will the ease of reproducibility make collectors of digital photographs reluctant to let others view their photographs? As Walter Benjamin has pointed out (Benjamin 1978), original artifacts actually gain in value because they are the only original of which numerous copies exist. But with digital photography, originals are indistinguishable from copies. So collectors of originals who let others view (and possibly copy) them run the risk of possessing what amounts to "just one more copy."

Effects of Increased Access

A key result of widespread digitization will be increased access; digitization of photographic images will inevitably result in more people viewing the surrogate images. While at this point in time many institutions with photographic collections provide no public access to works not currently on exhibition (and only allow a limited group of scholars to view the originals), most of these institutions will undoubtedly choose to provide viewing access of electronic surrogates to anyone who enters their doors. Many of these institutions will choose to make at least some electronic surrogates available to an even wider public through the Internet or on CD ROMs. Paradoxically, the increased access to surrogates may lead to even more restricted access to originals, allowing only the most advanced scholars to view them.

This process of increased access (at least to surrogates) is likely to have a significant democratizing effect, particularly if/when the institutions allow access to these from outside their walls (via networks or CDs). Current constraints (limited hours, admission fees, and the display of only a limited number of works) which serve to limit access to images will disappear. The new capability of viewing surrogate museum images on nights and weekends is not unlike the kind of "instant gratification" that we have seen manifested in the more entertainment-oriented art forms such as videotaped films. This easy path to satiation can lead to a leveling of desire (citation).

Benjamin also pointed out (Benjamin 1978) that being able to appreciate a work of art in a setting other than a museum is a significant step in opening up art to the masses. Of course, living near the end of the 20th century, we are already used to determining the setting for our own appreciation of culture. We don't have to go to a concert-hall to listen to music; we can listen in the comfort of our homes (or even while jogging). But one level of democratization that Benjamin did not anticipate is the ability to interact with the art work (or rather its image) through computers.

Interactivity offers the opportunity for participation in many different ways. With the ability to zoom in and zoom out and to compare close-ups, the spectator can begin to make his/her own juxtapositions at various levels. This includes placing close-ups side-by-side, as well as juxtaposing whole objects to one another, and discovering new relationships between them. By being able to create these new juxtapositions, the spectator is able to participate in activities that previously were almost exclusively within the domain of curators and other professionals. These interactive processes engage the viewer, and make him/her more of a participant than a spectator. Additional processes such as image processing techniques (which allow the viewer to alter and combine images) offer even further engagement, and raise critical issues of authorship of the altered image (which will be explained below).

Scholarly Research

With the advent of computers and networks, the scholarly research of images that has had to take place within repositories may soon be done remotely. Repositories will help to construct scholar's workstations incorporating tools which allow the user to analyze digital images, combine them in different ways, create new juxtapositions, and explore scholarly text-based information about individual photographs, photographers, their subjects, etc. (Besser 1987; Besser 1992; other chapters in this book) When the scholars workstation is combined with databanks of digital images of photographs, this will provide the scholar with powerful tools to do his/her research.

But much work remains in identifying and developing tools to aid the photographic researcher. For example, there has only been one significant set of studies to date of image quality needs of scholarly researchers (Ester 1990, Ester 1994).

General Public's Confusion of Surrogate Image and Original

Increased access to images may lead the general public to confuse the onscreen image with the photograph that it represents. Eventually, the image may not be regarded as merely a temporary substitute for the original, but rather as a permanent replacement. In this day and age, when time appears so scarce, people are less likely to make a special trip to a museum to see an original object if they can see quite a reasonable facsimile from their home workstation -- especially if they can "play" with it. Over time, people may increasingly forego the experience of looking at actual art pieces because it's so much easier to view images from a screen. What they will miss is what Benjamin called the "aura" -- the viewing of a unique object within the same context and setting that everyone must view it. Those viewing the image only onscreen will be missing a presence that cannot be reproduced, nor adequately expressed in words. It is the same kind of unquantifiable experience that is rapidly disappearing from so many facets of life in our modern society (like the feel of being completely alone in the wilderness, or of watching a truly wild animal glimpse her first human being).

As a result of these factors, a collection may decide to provide coarser surrogate images (i.e.. lower resolution, less colors). In a sense, a poor surrogate image of an object could be considered preferable to a good one, because a poor image calls attention to the fact that it is indeed a representation of the original. A better representation, on the other hand, tends to mask the fact that it is merely a reproduction, and for many people it will be seen as a one-for-one substitute for the original. Yet, once the general public becomes used to the quality of images that will be delivered to their home via HDTV, will they be willing to even look at coarse images?

Changing roles of museums and curators

By offering access to surrogate images of most of its materials (instead of simply those on exhibition), the museum becomes less like an archive and more like a library. Museums are likely to shift from repositories which offer visitors a passive experience primarily through their exhibitions and publications, to institutions which encourage a more interactive role for visitors. The general public may shift from viewing culture as something to consume to viewing culture as something to interact with.

When the patron no longer has to visit the gallery or museum in order to see a particular image, the authority of the institution will likely begin to erode. And when the general public has (from their own home) access to a wealth of digitized images and scholarly information about them, many individuals will begin to make their own links and juxtapositions between these images. This may serve to further erode the authority of the curator as the leading figure who places images within a context. A possible result may be an erosion of high culture in general, with the curator's role becoming somewhat akin to that of a film critic.

Proliferation of Images, Paying for Access

Plans underway by companies like Bill Gates' Corbis and the telecommunications companies planning to construct the "Information Superhighway" will lead to the widespread dissemination of images in digital form. These will be easy to copy, and will lead to a proliferation of images throughout our daily lives. As we have seen with word processing (which promised to use less paper but actually created more), photocopy machines (which created an atmosphere where people don't hesitate to copy documents they are only slightly interested in), and computer disk files (where people keep endless copies of many drafts of old documents that they will never look at), when technology makes it quick and easy to make copies, people often make those copies indiscriminately. How will this tendency affect curators? Will they collect more digital photographs (or more versions of the same photographs) just because it is easy and they have the space to do so? How will this affect museum patrons or the general public? Will they indiscriminately collect images like some people collect pennies?

The proliferation of images (as we are beginning to see on CompuServe, America Online, and the Internet) may have a profound effect on the "specialness" of any image. Living in a world where we are constantly bombarded with images and where we can see any image we want instantaneously could lead towards a blurring of distinction between "good" (artistic) images and "bad" ones. Or, the increased exposure could lead to help the general public develop a more cultivated eye and result in increased connoisseurship. Benjamin points out (Benjamin 1978, 223) that the increased access to identical reproductions of originals increases our "sense of the universal equality of things." Similar to one of the effects that Duchamp's ReadyMades had on popular perception of art, people may begin to blur the distinction between what is art and what are everyday things.

We are seeing the creation of huge image data banks oriented toward uses such as advertising. Soon publicity departments will be able to (from the comfort of their office) scan through thousands of photographs of butterflies, birds, trees, etc. and combine these to form the background for their advertisements. This is likely to mark the end of commercial photography as we know it today.

The development of "for fee" data banks of images has interesting implications. Companies licensing digital reproduction rights from photographic repositories are likely to contract for the institution's entire holdings. With market forces driving such efforts, these companies are likely to "cherry pick" (or "skim") the collections, and only make the most lucrative images available in digital form. More esoteric works (or those with a smaller audience) will either not be publicly available, or will be very costly to obtain in digital format. This is similar to the current situation for videotapes of independent, documentary, and "art" films.

Furthermore, in a market-based economy, if images that have been "improved" will sell, aren't they likely to become widely available (like colorized films)? Instead of encouraging individuals to alter pieces of work in their own creative ways, we may end up with a small set of individuals with the power to control the alterations in ways governed solely by what can be marketed to the public. While Frank Capra was aghast that his film ("It's a Wonderful Life") was colorized, Ted Turner claimed "I own the films, ... I can do whatever I want with them ... Besides, I like things in color. We see in color. Why didn't they make The Sting in B & W if they're so concerned about historical authenticity? I don't see their point" (Turner 1986). Is the logical conclusion to all this that art will become just another commodity like shaving cream, baseball cards, or pantyhose? Will art be reduced to its lowest common denominator (like music in elevators)?

Another important impact of "for fee" image banks is how they will affect user access habits. "No fee" situations (as we saw in the early years of the Internet) encourage exploration. Users will look at things "because they are there," and tend to make serendipitous discoveries. "For fee" situations give the public the incentive to focus their attention on what they know they already want or to look for well-known items previously recommended by others. In "for fee" environments, researchers tend to follow more traditional paths of discovery, and seldom explore totally unexpected avenues. Yet, throughout history, many of the most interesting discoveries made have come from following unconventional routes. (Indeed, Thomas Kuhn makes the claim that, even in the hard sciences, real breakthroughs only come from following these unconventional routes [Kuhn 1962]).

Questions of Authorship, Commodification

The ability to actually change the photographic image on the screen serves to diminish the authority of the original artist, essentially forming a new creation out of a synthesis between the artist's work as originally conceived, and the user-invoked changes. In the spirit of post-modernism, every photographic image becomes a potential ingredient in a new piece of art.

But in an era of widespread access to existing images, the general public may make small changes to downloaded digital photographs and incorporate these into new pieces that they will call art. (This is similar to what is we have seen done with "Clip Art".) Rather than creating something from a concept, one could say that he or she is merely reacting to a previously- packaged piece (almost like filling in the colors in a coloring book). But in the future, the general public may refer to this reacting as "creativity" in the same way that preparing a meal in a microwave oven is referred to as "cooking".

Altered images raise interesting curatorial questions, some of which affect most postmodern art. Primary among these are authorship and authenticity. Who is the author -- the original photographer or the person who digitally altered the photograph? When we retrieve photographs from digital image banks, how do we know that the image we are retrieving hasn't been altered (or hasn't been altered beyond the particular altered version we were seeking)?

With the authority of the artist and the sacredness of the original removed, does art then become even more a victim of the marketplace? In this age of commodification, art might become even more of a consumer product. (Silverman 1986) How will the general populace relate to photographic images sold alongside other commodities on the information superhighway?


Discussions with Lester Weiss of the UC Berkeley University Art Museum and Rena Diamond contributed significantly to the refinement of the ideas presented in this paper. Maria Bonn assisted in editing. This paper was originally written for the "Working Group for Digital Image in Curatorial Practice", a June 4, 1994 meeting organized by Roger Bruce at Eastman House and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Slight additions and updates were made in late 1995. Many of the ideas were excerpted from The Changing Museum, a paper the author wrote for the 1987 Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science (Besser 1987).


Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations, New York: Schocken, 1978.

Howard Besser, "Adding an Image Database to an Existing Library and Computer Environment: Design and Technical Considerations," in Susan Stone and Michael Buckland (eds.), Studies in Multimedia (Proceedings of the 1991 Mid-Year Meeting of the American Society for Information Science), Medford, NJ: Learned Information, 1992, pages 31-45.

Howard Besser, "Advanced Applications of Imaging: Fine Arts," Journal of the American Society of Information Science, September 1991, pages 589-596

Howard Besser, "User Interfaces for Museums," Visual Resources 7, 1991, pages 293-309

Howard Besser, "Visual Access to Visual Images: The UC Berkeley Image Database Project," Library Trends 4 (Spring 1990): 787-798.

Howard Besser, "The Changing Museum," Proceedings of the 1987 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science, Medford, NJ: Learned Information, 1987, pages 14-19.

Michael Ester, "Image Quality and Viewer Perception," Leonardo (Digital Image-Digital Cinema, Supplemental Issue, 1990): 51-53.

Michael Ester, "Digital Images in the Context of Visual Collections and Scholarship," Visual Resources X (1994):11-24.

Thomas Kuhn, The structure of scientific revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Debora Silverman, Selling culture : Bloomingdale's, Diana Vreeland, and the new aristocracy of taste in Reagan's America, New York: Pantheon, 1986.

Return to Howard's Homepage

Last modified: 3/11/1997