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The Making of Photographydatabase.org (2)

BY ANDREW ESKIND

[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 second 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.

Photography Source and Resource was totally pre-computer. In the mid-1970s, Jim asked George Eastman House to be the sponsoring non-profit for a grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts to expand the survey. With support from the NEA and extensive use of an early Wang word processor (remember 8-inch floppy disks?), An Index to American Photographic Collections (407 pages) was published by G.K. Hall in 1982.

McQuaid moved on to pursue other interests (an NEH-supported project conducting oral histories of photographers) before leaving George Eastman House. But it had already seemed natural to combine Eastman House’s rapidly growing biography file of its own photographers with the more universal list of photographers, including indication of which public collections hold examples of their work. Second and third editions of Index to American Photographic Collections were compiled with NEH support, edited by Eskind, Drake, et al and published by G.K. Hall in 1990 and 1995. The final print edition was retitled International Photography: GEH Index to Photographers, Collections, and Exhibitions, and appeared in 1998, running over 2000 pages in three volumes.

George Eastman House logoNot only had the scope expanded to include international collections as well as exhibitions (listed chronologically), but online access (via Telnet) now included far more information — places of birth and death, notes, roles, affiliations, sources — that had been impractical to squeeze into what had by then become a large and expensive print edition.

This is very similar to the situation experienced by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), various encyclopediae, and reference works in general.

Photography Database logoSkipping ahead (or back) to the post-Eastman House online implementation now known as photographydatabase.org: This project is once again an independent effort, edited and published by Andrew Eskind and Greg Drake — Eskind focusing primarily on exhibitions and galleries (yes, commercial gallery holdings are now incorporated), and Drake primarily focused on collections’ holdings and biographical research. The database now includes links to photographers’ own web sites, links to museums’ and galleries’ web sites, links to exhibitions’ online publicity, and links to online publications cited as sources.

Who uses this resource and for what purposes? First and foremost, the editors pride themselves on the accuracy of the information. Every time photographers are collated for a new collection or an exhibition an additional proofreading and fact-checking takes place. Variant life dates, variant spellings, other ambiguities. (Which Michael Smith are they talking about? Which William Bell?) Editorial effort is applied to resolve discrepancies, to figure out which is correct, which erroneous. Research will always uncover previously unknown factual details. In a sense, this work is a giant ongoing work-in-progress

Thus, students, teachers, curators, collectors, appraisers, all have a first stop from which they can judge — on the basis of how many collections, how many exhibitions, how many citations — how an individual photographer fits into the larger scene. What can be concluded about a photographer whose work is in many collections, yet is seldom or never exhibited? What — aside from premature demise — can be concluded about photographers whose work is exhibited primarily posthumously, as opposed to during their lifetimes? Are all museums trending from group and thematic exhibits toward monographic or solo shows? Have exhibits always been circulated/traveled, as is now fairly common practice? Is there any correlation between the size of exhibits and their duration, now, or in the past? What do we learn by comparing the nationalities of photographers collected in American collections with the proportions represented in Canadian, European, or Japanese collections?

Photography Database screenshot

Photography Database screenshot

Because photographydatabase.org has been structured specifically for a relatively narrow domain (photography) and applies controlled vocabularies to some fields, it is possible to pose Boolean queries — such as who are the French, female, photojournalists — that simply can’t be effectively done via Google, or Wikipedia.

Anyone can use the database for factual information. Students and researchers can also use it to ask questions. Statistics can be generated; what the statistics mean or imply requires further study and analysis. Sometimes the data will simply provide a starting point for the extension or construction of more elements, in greater depth, in order to reach new conclusions.

The indisputable observation — the no-brainer — supported by the flood of available information is that there are more people creating photographs, there are more exhibitions of photography, there are more collections acquiring more work, than ever before. Photography appears in galleries that were formerly the exclusive domain of non-photographic art. Recycling of images mirrors recycling of other used resources. Repurposing of existing images by identifiable photographers (Sherrie Levine’s “After Walker Evans” series, for example) may not forever be in vogue, but it presents yet another data point for organizers of information to attempt to represent in such a project.

As McQuaid anticipated in his earliest effort, these types of projects need boundaries to assure that they are finite and do-able. Our boundaries have continuously expanded: from only U.S. public collections to international collections; exhibition histories for museums as well as for photographers; links to the proliferation of web sites; and recently, commercial galleries. (Though the last-named come and go, and their artists’ lists change, they typically discover the younger photographers and introduce them to the worlds of museums and collectors — and thus to photographydatabase.org.)

Andrew Eskind underwater

Andrew Eskind underwater

Editors Eskind and Drake are constantly contacting individual photographers (or their descendents), colleagues in the museum world, gallerists, and others, attempting to resolve ambiguities and discrepancies. (And yes, we give museums more credence in regard to what they own and don’t own than we do the claims sometimes made in galleries’ bios.)

Thus, existing records are amplified and tweaked over and over again. As the reputation and scope of the project grows, more and more information is referred to us for inclusion. We sometimes liken the flood of information to standing in front of a fire hose and attempting to swallow a meaningful amount of the water. Extra help is always welcome; sponsors are especially welcome. Fundraising and marketing skills are especially, especially welcome.

At present, we refresh the online data every two weeks. Sooner or later I’m sure a user will admonish us for not having a photographer’s life dates updated within 24 hours of his/her demise. We’ll continue to do our best, and look forward to users’ feedback of all types. Without it, we don’t know what to swallow.

Skipping ahead in The Information, Gleick relates a wonderful moment from the 1970s when the physics world was struggling to reconcile the quantum mechanics axiom that information may never be destroyed with the notion that information, along with matter and energy, falls into black holes, yet nothing can escape from a black hole. Physicist John Preskill bet black hole inventor Stephen Hawking that information must escape the black hole somehow. The winner of the wager would receive an encyclopedia of his choice.

In 2004, Hawking conceded the bet. Was the prize photographydatabase.org? Close, but no cigar: Total Baseball: The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia — a mere 2688 pages at the time, but presumably larger by now.

Faster was an earlier book by James Gleick in which he detailed some of the downsides of living at the ever-accelerating pace we’ve almost come to accept and expect. One of those is certainly the rapidity with which any update becomes outdated. Projects that attempt to include current content, like photographydatabase, are never done; they’re open-ended by definition. We invite you to enjoy and make use of the fruits of our labor so far.

(Part 1 I Part 2)

Andrew Eskind_, Chicago, 1971

Andrew Eskind_, Chicago, 1971

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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