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The Making of Photographydatabase.org (1)


[Note: Photographydatabase.org is a free, online database indexing over 95,000 photographers — from the beginning of photography up to today — whose work is owned by, and accessible to researchers at, over 1000 public museums and archives in the United States and throughout the world. It cross-indexes photographers, collections, exhibitions, bibliographic citations, and now, for the first time, commercial galleries as well. It is the most extensive reference tool of its kind in the field of photography, with additions made on a daily basis.

Photographydatabase.org traces its origins to work begun by Andrew Eskind in the 1970s and developed throughout his 30-year tenure at George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Though the site is no longer hosted by the Eastman House, Eskind and co-editor Greg Drake continue to follow a non-profit or academic model rather than become a commercial enterprise. The future of this work therefore depends on grant support, sponsorships, and donations. In the first half of this two-part essay, Eskind describes the genesis and evolution of the project. — Editor]

Andrew Eskind. Photo © 2011 by J. D. Sloan.

Andrew Eskind. Photo © 2011 by J. D. Sloan.

I’m reading James Gleick’s new book, The Information. An early chapter discusses English dictionaries, beginning with Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall (1604), and continuing with James Murray’s mammoth 19th-century undertaking: processing a million slips of paper on the road to publishing the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED continues today, vastly expanded — the production methodology as well as the flood of neologisms based now on internet and computer technologies. Gleick even recounts the era when knowledge of the order or the alphabet wasn’t totally taken for granted (or even known by everyone), and the notion of creating lists ordered after the alphabet was a novel idea.

At the risk of comparing my own passion for compiling basic information about people who make photographs with the creation of the OED, I do relate to out-scale projects, and see many similarities in this type of work. Just as digital technology has fostered an explosion of new words often used first in blogs, tweets, IM, and email, it has also expanded the universe of photographers to the millions of users of cell phones and iPads, not to mention easy-to-use, quality digital cameras in every size and price point.

Photography Database logoThe OED no longer depends upon volunteers reading books and sending in slips of paper with words and page numbers. Nor does Photographydatabase.org receive lists of photographers held in public collections compiled by archivists and delivered by postal mail (or as we now say, “snail mail”). Instead, most information comes directly from online publications. The library at George Eastman House provides invaluable and timely access to print publications from all ears. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the mid-1970s, George Eastman House was a pioneer among museums beginning to attempt to use computers to store and retrieve and organize information about large collections of objects. Silly by today’s standards — a mainframe computer cast in the role of printing press of otherwise traditional library catalog cards. Tear apart at the perforations and interfile alphabetically with the others already in place.

George Eastman House logoNo great insight was needed to realize that it was pointless when cataloging a few hundred prints by Ansel Adams, or a few thousand by Alvin Langdon Coburn or Lewis Hine, to have to enter, or even store, their birth and death dates — (1902-1984), or (1882-1966), or (1874-1940) — redundantly in each of those records. The obvious solution was the creation of what we then called a “biography file.”

Librarians call this a “name authority file.” In database parlance (perhaps more familiar to today’s readers), it’s called a linked or related table. This file or table also provides a place to note that, in his own era, a certain photographer was best known as M. B. Brady; librarians consider best known name in one’s own lifetime to be the “authority” version of a name. Never mind that subsequently we have great debates over the variants “Mathew” vs. “Matthew” (the former regarded as an unfortunately perpetuated mistake).

Little by little, as the Eastman House cataloged photographs, additional information was incorporated into the librarians’ simple “name authority file.” Why not include places and exact dates of birth and death, nationality, addresses, affiliations, sources, general notes, etc. — anything and everything pertinent to a particular set of records?

Turnip Press logo

Turnip Press logo

In 1973, Jim McQuaid (along with Steve Lewis and David Tait) had independently published a small, yellow paperback volume titled Photography: Source & Resource (under the imprint Turnip Press, distributed by Light Impressions). It had a Preface by my predecessor at Eastman House, Thomas Barrow, who by then had relocated to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. There were chapters titled “Teaching,” “Workshops,” “Publishing,” “Critics” (including a directory of 34 with their affiliations — some still active today), “Galleries,” and “Index to Collections.”

The concluding chapter — the Collections Index — occupied a full 41 pages of the book. It began with 2 museum collections in Alabama (15 photographers listed), continuing state-by-United-State. The largest listing was just over 4 columns for photographers with work at the Art Institute of Chicago. Not yet any J. Paul Getty Museum, ICP, MOPA, CCP, nor CMP. Eastman House was listed under International Museum of Photography, but offered only a general description — no photographers’ names.

Photography: Source & Resource (1973), cover

Photography: Source & Resource (1973), cover

The “Index to Collections” chapter of Photography: Source & Resource opens with these words:

“To the best of our knowledge there exists no similar index in any media. Our initial reason for compiling it was to inform people around the country about the visual resources in their own locale. The creation of such an index, however, will clearly have many important additional effects.”

The chapter concludes with a cross-index of photographers’ names, beginning with William Abbenseth, informing us that his work may be found at the Oakland Museum and at University Gallery, University of Minnesota. As of today, Photographydatabase.org lists 10 collections for Abbenseth (1898-1972). And his spot at the top of the alphabet has been pre-empted by Aaberg & Runsten of Montana. The “most widely held” champ, then and now? You guessed it: Ansel Adams. In 1973, Adams’s holdings were reported by 37 of the approximately 95 collections reporting photographers by name. Photographydatabase.org today lists 190 collections for Adams, actually a smaller percentage of the total number, which now includes many international collections.

McQuaid made two other prescient comments in introducing this chapter:

“Subsequent editions will update and expand this listing periodically.”


“Our initial distinction (between ‘creative’ and ‘historical’ photographs) was clearly only of help in convincing us that the task we were undertaking was finite and do-able.”

(Part 1 I Part 2)

Andrew Eskind baby picture, ca. 1947

Andrew Eskind at work on juvenilia, ca. 1947

Andrew Eskind earned a Master’s degree in photography at the Institute of Design, IIT, Chicago in 1973, studying with Aaron Siskind, Arthur Siegel, and Garry Winogrand. He left Chicago in 1973 to work at George Eastman House, where he continued to work for the next 30 years. The many projects he pioneered there included the early application of computer technology to the management of large museum collections, and the first George Eastman House website.

After leaving GEH in 2003, Eskind has served as an adjunct instructor at Visual Studies Workshop, where he and students have researched and digitized nearly 10% of the previously unexplored, million-image street-vendor photography collection of Joseph Selle. In addition to publishing Photographydatabase.org, he is an active digital photographer and videographer.

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