Among the archives: America does it bigger and better by Liz Jobey
Dust bowl refugees: iconic images now available to everyone online. Photograph: Dorothea Lange/Corbis
I have just spent an engrossing afternoon in the photography collection at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. That I should have done this from the comfort of my own living room in London is one of the bonuses of a decent broadband connection and a reasonably educated ability to put in the correct tags and key words to get to what I was looking for. But, more exciting, is to find what I wasn't looking for, such as a whole collection of the German photographer Thomas Struth's Streets of New York series: photographs made in the late 1970s, of New York City intersections, deserted cross streets and avenues, taken early in the morning before anybody was about, and reminiscent for this, and other reasons, of Atget's street scenes of Paris, taken 60 years before.
I first saw Struth's series of German streetscapes at the ICA in London in 1994. At that point I knew nothing about him, but the blank, slightly sinister but immaculately detailed precision of these streets, in which no person moved, had a forensic quality that drew the viewer to examine them intensively, surveying every detail without need of a specific focal point, or a narrative, to explain them. They had instead a psychological sense of place - the bleakness that, in the 1960s and 1970s we came to associate with semi-rebuilt post-war German cities.
I learned later that Struth had trained in Düsseldorf, under Bernd Becher and Gerhard Richter, and as a teenager (as he told Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times in 2003) he had begun to notice the way that, though his parents didn't speak about the war, the streets and buildings he walked through, did. He began to photograph them in Düsseldorf, and later, also in Berlin, Naples, Tokyo and New York. The New York streets had a different character: here the streets, though empty of people, were full of the signs and had the patina of long-uninterrupted commerce. In Manhattan, buildings go up, come down, go up again; neighbourhoods prosper and fail according to fashion and economics. But among Struth's New York collection at the Met are two photographs which have acquired, in different ways, historical resonance: the first, a view of the junction of Crosby Street and Spring Street, taken in 1978, shows SoHo, caught on the cusp between a post-industrial wasteland, where artists could still afford its lofts, before the shops and galleries and money moved in; the second is the crossing of Dey Street and Broadway, looking east, an innocuous enough looking junction until, as you follow the street as it recedes, you see what from the thumbnail-sized image appears to be the vertical pillars of, perhaps, the Brooklyn Bridge, but then, when enlarged, reveals itself as one of the Twin Towers, cutting off the view at the end of the street entirely with its rising grid of floors and windows. I checked a map of Manhattan; sure enough, Dey Street runs into the empty square on the Google map that marks Ground Zero. Struth's calm, uninflected scene has been flooded with history and emotion in a way he could never have imagined.
The afternoon had begun as an exercise in checking the state of online collections - taking at random some of the international institutions known for their photographic holdings - to see which offered the best online access in terms of both ease of entry and the quality and scope of their archive. Ever since broadband became easily available, one of its great advantages has been allowing us to see art and photography exhibitions and collections that otherwise would have been physically impossible to get to, or have been off-limits to the lay visitor.
It didn't take long to come to the unsurprising conclusion that British photographic collections lagged far behind their American counterparts, not only in what they offered, but also how it was offered, and to whom. In Britain, the collections are either divided into small bundles of infotainment, or offered as a business transaction to specialists, picture editors and the media, who buy reproduction rights. In the Science Museum, for example, you will find the best selection of photographs online in the Science and Society Photo Library under the heading Doing Business with Us.
The Media Museum in Bradford, from whose collection many of the Science and Society pictures are taken, offers groups of pictures (between 10 and 20 in each) under different headings giving little idea of the wealth and breadth of its mammoth holdings. There are 19 examples from the Daily Herald collection, which fills drawer after drawer of metal cabinets in the museum with thousands of domestic images, taken between 1911 (when the Daily Herald was launched as the first trade union paper) and 1964, when it became the Sun; and a selection from the Royal Photographic Society's collection, bought for the nation for £3.25 million in 2002, but in need of a massive injection of funding to catalogue, scan and make available more of its images online. An initiative to fund a national database that brings all our national photographic holdings together online, rather in the way Microsoft and the British Library are working to digitise millions of pages of their books, would be of enormous value not only to our schools and colleges, but to art institutions and enthusiasts worldwide. Until that happens, there will be little more than a piecemeal collection of top-ten hits on view, despite the claims to "world class" status.
Take the V&A. On its website, it boasts that its collection of photographs "is now is one of the largest and most important in the world" with over 500,000 images. Its photography gallery "focuses on the history of photography, with an annual display of around 40 outstanding photographs from the V&A's collection." Yes, four-o. These are the prints that are on a rotating display in room 38A of the museum, which still pays relatively little importance to showing its photographic holdings to the public. You can make an appointment to view photographs in the print room; and you can see the forty different images each year. But even if only a fifth of its photographs were of public interest, at this rate, it will take more than a couple of centuries to get through them.
African American Family in Georgia. Photograph: Dorothea Lange/Corbis
The online service isn't much better. You can search through a limited list of highlights in its special photography section, and there are a couple of hundred randomly collated images (which included watercolour sketches and lithographs) if you do a general search under 'photographs'. A more specific enquiry is likely to be met with either a blank - Image Unavailable - or confusion: when I searched for Martin Parr, generally accepted as one of Britain's best known living photographers, I was directed, though not uninterestingly, to the work of Conrad Hafenrichter, "a documentary photographer most active in the 1970s and 1980s ... noted for his gently satirical images of people and animals. His ability to draw out the more ridiculous aspects of mundane activities places his work in a similar vein to his better-known contemporary Martin Parr."
In America, by contrast, there is much more of an understanding that accurate and methodically catalogued online collections can appeal to academic researchers and photo enthusiasts alike. Photomuse is an initiative run by the International Center of Photography in New York and the International Museum of Photography and Film at George Eastman House in Rochester, especially to provide online resources for the study of photography. There is a wealth of material from both institutions, though you can also search their individual collections quite easily under listed photographers. At George Eastman House, I found a beautiful set of Lewis Baltz's Tract Houses (1971), and, in the same photographer's index, Lewis Hine's Ellis Island photographs of immigrant families - Italian, Slovaks, Germans, Russians (Dutch) - arriving in America in 1905 and 1926. Hine, born in Wisconsin, was one of the founders of socially concerned documentary photography; Baltz, born in California in 1945, was one of a group of contemporary art photographers whose work dealt with the hard, dehumanising effects of the manmade landscape. I don't want to promote the idea of instant history, but this is an almost effortless, and pleasurable, way to learn more about the world, and about art, by looking.
Italians on Ellis Island. Photograph: Lewis Hine/Corbis
The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection, one of the earliest collections to be made available online, is a site I would recommend to anybody interested in America, particularly the period between the wars, when the Farm Securities Administration (FSA) employed a number of photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, to the poor farming regions of the Dust Bowl, the South, and California, where thousands of migrant workers and displaced tenant farmers arrived, promised a new start by the Resettlement Administration.
The bulk of the FSA material (around 164,000 scanned negatives) is black and white, but a small group of photographers, including Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon and Jack Delano worked in colour, of which around 1,600 images have been digitised. The saturated colour is both seductive and unsettling, its lushness often at odds with the deprivation that is its subject. Here is a simple example of how glamour distorts the photographic language, but like all early colour photographs, it brings to the image the shock of discovery that black and white sometimes lacks. Many of these pictures are like film stills, quite different from Walker Evans's earlier and better known photographs for the FSA, in which the late John Szarkowski found: "such a fastidious reserve that the quality of the picture seemed identical to that of the subject".
The Getty Museum, which began collecting photographs in 1984, when it bought nine collections as the foundation of its department, offers various ways into their online photo collection. You can search by process, or, if you know which photographer's work you are looking for, you can enter it into a search engine and receive thumbnails of every image they hold online. They also have a section on very early photography: daguerreotypes, cartes-de-visite, stereographs and negatives, including an image of Lacock Abbey, the home of Fox Talbot, the English inventor of photography, taken in November 1839 with a camera obscura, and appearing no less ghostly on my computer screen 180 years later.
The Museum of Modern Art, whose Photography Department opened in 1930 (and where Szarkowski was director from 1962 to 1991), has a cleanly designed searchable online database within its Collections section. Notes are included with each image, and there is a useful quick guide to how many images by the particular photographer are held in its online collection. There are also links to any related past exhibitions, talks and museum projects, and the site offers a nice printable version of image and notes that will make it boon for students of photography, who could quickly make up their own little book of favourites.
A shining example to British collections: New York's Metropolitan Museum website
Which brings me back to the Met, where, if you make your way to the collections database, and then to Photographs, you can either run through all 26,898 of their online images, or try the Highlights, or go straight to the Walker Evans Archive, which contains over 10,000 items, not only images but all his personal papers: early writings, working notebooks, lecture papers, tear sheets, etc and ends with a series of cheerful Polaroids, taken not by Evans, but of him, with a full, snowy beard, "Seated at His 71st Birthday Party", on November 3 1974, less than six months before his death.
Whichever way you choose to go at the Met site, it is particularly satisfying, not only in the breadth of its collection, but also in its offer of allowing you to compile your own little gallery of images, once you've registered. I know this sounds gimmicky, but it somehow isn't once you realise that you can, say, give your selection a theme - "the road and the street" for example, and quickly find affinities across different photographers' works. So you might add Dorothea Lange's famous image The Road West (1938), to Robert Frank's photograph from The Americans of his wife Mary and son Pablo, huddled in the front seat of their car on Interstate 90, on the way to Del Rio, Texas (1956); or Frank's dramatic image of a pedestrian crossing the white line of 34th Street, New York (1948), that seems to stretch as far into the distance as Lange's highway to Thomas Struth's picture of Dey Street (1978). Carleton Watkins's The Town on the Hill, New Almaden, taken in California in 1863 is oddly similar to Robert Adams's photograph of New Housing, Colorado Springs, taken over a century later in 1968. In this way you can enjoy looking at and learning more about them.
The more cognisant you become of what these collections have to offer and the more easily you move among them, the more random cross-postings result in images that, otherwise, you might never has seen, like this Walker Evans portrait of Robert and Mary Frank, with their daughter Andrea, taken c.1958, which I found by accident in the MoMA Collection. If it really was taken in 1958, then that it was exactly 50 years ago, the same year that Frank's most famous book, The Americans, was first published in France. It was published in America a year later, with Jack Kerouac's introduction ("Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank upon the tragic poets of the world.")
Next month, on May 15, a new edition of The Americans, assembled and printed under Frank's supervision, will be published to celebrate what has become one of the most influential books of photographs ever published (Steidl, £25). Some of the individual images can be found online within the Met's collection, but in the case of The Americans, it is not only the single images but Frank's sequencing of them that really counts. So, happy birthday to The Americans. When I looked through the book this afternoon, I thought how little, in its essentials, the country has changed.
In the future I'll be looking into other online archives, less well known than the above. See for Dutch Cultural heritage and digitalisation ...