The Changing Role of Photographic Collections
With the Advent of Digitization

Discussion Paper for
Working Group for Digital Image in Curatorial Practice
George Eastman House
June 4, 1994

Howard Besser
Canadian Centre For Architecture
Montréal, Quebec


This draft paper does not try to deal thoroughly with all the changes likely to affect photographic collections in the wake of image digitization; instead its intention is to identify important issues for discussion and to begin the process of framing that discussion. Many of the ideas here are excerpted from The Changing Museum, a paper I wrote for the 1987 Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science (Besser 1987).

The implementation of digital systems to view surrogates of photographic images housed in museums, archives, and libraries is likely to have a significant effect on those collections and their use. How this is likely to help preserve delicate collections and increase 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 the following pages I hypothesize about potential effects of widespread photographic digitization on the museum, scholarly research, and the general public. I look at 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. I identify critical issues that will be raised concerning authorship and authenticity. And I begin to examine issues of 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 (closing movie theaters, significantly altering the economics of the entertainment industry, and leading individuals to new habits of viewing in private spaces and at a time of their own choosing), the dissemination of networked digital information is likely to promote revolutionary changes in both institutions and personal habits for other forms of culture and scholarship.

We are already seeing this happen in the world of librarianship. Libraries are becoming less important for the materials they collect or house, and more important for what kind of material they can get in response to user requests. This movement from collecting material "just in case" someone will need it, to one of developing relationships allowing the library to deliver material from elsewhere "just in time" to answer a user's needs is a profound shift for the library as an institution. This shift to on-demand delivery of material from elsewhere is a direct result of the recent proliferation of digital networking in an environment where standards for description were already well established.

Along with the changes to libraries as institutions have come changes to the roles of librarians. The proliferation of networked digital information is causing a shift of librarians from caretakers of physical collections to people who identify resources that exist in collections housed elsewhere. This is currently evident in most major research libraries where librarians spend much of their time creating electronic pointers to resources on the Internet (using tools such as gopher). Efforts like this are likely to greatly increase in the foreseeable future.

As digital representations of photographic images proliferate, we can expect to see similar 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

Today photographs are 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). Photographs are not really a commodity because they are not mass produced, yet multiple nearly-identical copies may exist.

Digital photographs have no physical aspect to them (other than megabytes). We cannot look at them without the aid of external viewers. They can be easily mass-produced, with each copy identical to all the others (with far less variation between copies than occurs with other types of commodities). Because of the ease of mass production, the concept of physical ownership of a digital photograph becomes subordinate to that of intellectual ownership of the right to duplicate that photograph.

How will the lack of tangibility affect how people will 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 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. Digitizing of photographic images will inevitably result in more people viewing the surrogate images. While currently 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. And 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.

As Walter Benjamin pointed out (Benjamin 1978), 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 was the ability to interact with the art work (or rather its image), brought on by the computer age.

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 to discover 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 (see below).

The Scholars Workstation

In the past, scholarly examination of books, photographs, and other material took place only in specialized environments such as museums, archives, and libraries. As tools are developed to analyze works from personal computers, and as more of the works are available digitally through networks and CDs, scholarly research will shift from these specialized environments to homes and offices. This is likely to change both the way scholars work and the view of research institutions as specialized environments.

A scholars workstation can provide 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; Besser forthcoming) When the scholars workstation is combined with databanks of digital images of photographs, this will provide the scholar powerful tools to do his/her research.

Though we can identify a variety of tools that might be desirable in such a workstation (bibliography-handling, finding tools, image-sorting, image-processing, etc.), much work still needs to be done in identifying and developing tools to aid the photographic researcher. And there has only been one significant study to date of image quality needs of scholarly researchers (Ester 1990).

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 be missing is what Benjamin call the "aura" -- a presence that cannot be reproduced, and cannot even be 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.

Because of these factors, a collection may decide to provide coarser images. 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 being repositories which offer visitors a passive experience primarily through their exhibitions and publications, to become 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 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' Continuum 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're 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 when we want to see it 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 Duchamp's ReadyMades, 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 license those rights for the institution's entire holdings. But, 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. And, in a market-based economy, if images that have been "improved" will sell, aren't they likely to become widely available (like colorized films)?

Another important impact of "for fee" image banks is how they will affect user access habits. "No fee" situations (as we currently see on 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 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 begins to remove 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 already being 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 contributed significantly to the refinement of the ideas presented in this paper.


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.

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.

Last modified: 3/11/1997