Recently my wife and I took a long weekend trip to New York City. We saw some great shows, ate well, and visited galleries. There is no place like New York City.
As a former newspaper photographer, I was interested in the exhibits at the International Center of Photography. In particular “Weegee: Murder Is My Business.” What a great exhibition of the acclaimed crime photographer’s work. Not only did the ICP show off images made throughout the career of Arthur Fellig, they recreated his sparse apartment, which had been located across from the New York City police headquarters. Talk about living and breathing your work. Fellig is credited with being the original tabloid photographer. Not only were the images displayed in their graphic direct flash bulb large format detail, in many instances, the backs of the prints were also displayed. Published tear sheets had been affixed to the images, showing how the original had been printed, and usually included the published caption. They also were stamped with dates and the photographer’s name, in his case the modest imprint “Weegee The Great.” It reminded me that when I did my summer internship in 1975 at the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, I had to have a rubber stamp with my name on it for my prints. I chose to print my name in all lower case (david breslauer) something I continue to do to this day. Not sure modesty had anything to do with it. The information that accompanied the images, tearsheets affixed with rubber cement, or stamped, scribbled; a form of metadata to be sure, was amazing.
Carol, my lovely bride, loves France, and all things French, so in addition to eating at two different French restaurants, a visit to MoMA’s Eugène Atget exhibit that weekend satisfied both of us. The last time I crossed paths with Atget, was a photo history class at The University of Texas in 1976 and Beaumont Newhall’s “The History of Photography from 1839 to the present day.” I had to laugh, my textbook from then shows a list price of $7.50. It currently lists for $39.95. Is that inflation, or is there a lot of new history since 1976?
Back to the Atget exhibit. Amazing work. And of course, each image was accompanied by a descriptive placard (metadata) that included information in French and English and the date (often just a year) of the image.
“Maison où mourut Voltaire en 1778, 1 rue de Beaune”
“House where Voltaire died in 1778, 1 rue de Beaune”
Albumen silver print
I wonder if Atget thought of using a rubber stamp.
Curiously what started me thinking about information associated with images or on the back of prints was a recent entry on The New York Times Lens blog. The Times has created a Tumblr site called The Lively Morgue. It is a collection from the Times’ library of historical printed images. Each image is scanned both front and back for posting to their Tumblr site. I find the metadata included from the back of the print to be as interesting as the images themselves. Pictures are stamped with publication information, often from multiple instances, and include taped-on or glued captions torn from the actual newspaper.
I think about how easy it is to add metadata to content today. Digital Asset Management solutions like Merlin make it easy to add and update metadata at the time of image editing. They also make it easy to automatically capture the publication information previously taped to the back of prints doing away with the tedium of cutting and pasting tearsheet to images and properly re-filing the prints.
I also think about how most content sharing web sites have made it too easy to lose carefully added metadata. We all know the Internet is a huge free-for-all when it comes to protecting the rights of photographers (if I found it on the internet it must be free). Many photo sharing sites actually strip away embedded IPTC information when pictures are uploaded. All the carefully crafted caption and rights related information is stripped away by content sharing sites so that it becomes impossible to know the provenance of shared and re-shared images.
It makes me wonder if we are better off with rubber stamps and glue pots.
Posted by David Breslauer
Empire State Building Shadow Photo by David Breslauer