More on the Tate archive debacle

February 28 2012

Image of More on the Tate archive debacle

Picture: KHI

Dr Costanza Caraffa, the director of the Photo Library at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz (founded in 1897, one of oldest research institutions on art and architecture in Italy) has been in touch about the Tate's disposal of their photographic archive. She writes:

As director of the Photo Library of an art historical research institute (a German institution with seat in Florence) working also theoretically on photo archives, I would like to draw your attention to the "Florence Declaration - Recommendations for the Preservation of Analogue Photo Archives". 

To the many reasons that were mentioned in the article and in your blog, why throwing away such photographic holdings is an unforgivable crime against the scientific community and the entire society, I would like to add some new research perspectives on photographs and photo archives as material objects that cannot be substituted by digital surrogates. These new studies go beyond the disciplinary borders of art history and see photographs and archives as research objects on their on.

The "Florence Declaration" aims at an integration between the analogue format and the digital format, which only can guarantee the correct conservation of the photographic heritage for future studies and at the same time the implementation of digital instruments.

Quite. Indeed, these points were considered so important that there was a conference on them in 2009 attended by, amongst others, the Courtauld, the Getty, and Holland's RKD, all of which have large photographic archives. Their premise was that:

[Photographic] archives are valuable both as active research tools and as historical entities. They contain images that are records within the history of art, but are in themselves objects of study as historical photographs (for example as parts of bequests by major art historians, collectors, or photographers) and also as documents of art historical practices over time.

Photographic archives not only support but they generate research. Each archive has its historical and conceptual logic, which often raises as well as resolve research questions.

Additionally the mounts hold information about the photographs and the objects they represent.

There, in a nutshell, are several valid reasons as to why the Tate should not have disposed of their photographic archive. The mystery to me is this; if institutions such as the RKD and the Getty thought keeping the actual photos was so important, why didn't the Tate?

And here is the preamble from the Florence Declaration, which goes into more detail on why simply keeping a digital record of the photos is not the same as keeping the photos themselves:

The main role of photo archives, like that of every archive, is to guarantee the conservation and future accessibility of documents from the past for their possible future use for research purposes. 

The introduction of digital technologies has made new, powerful tools available for conservation and access requirements. Almost all photo archives are currently involved in electronic cataloguing and photographic print and negative digitization projects and new methods of online consultation have been developed. The digital technologies applied to the archive have thus undisputed advantages. 

However, for this very reason, there is a tendency to consider the consequences of these processes too superficially. In particular, the debates on digitalization imply that once digitally reproduced, the original artefacts can be removed from consultation or even dispensed with altogether. The Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut on the other hand, supported by the other subscribers to these recommendations, believes that it is essential for the future of studies in historic, human and social sciences to generate a greater understanding of the inescapable value of photographs and analogue archives.  

The conviction that it is useful and necessary to preserve the analogue photo archives is based on two simple considerations: 

- the technologies not only condition the methods of transmission, conservation and enjoyment of the documents, but they also shape its content; 

- the photographs are not simply images independent from their mount, but rather objects endowed with materiality that exist in time and space.

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