Friday, February 19, 2010

Bon appetit!

Recently it was reported that one of the most important photographic archives of the twentieth century was being shipped by trailer truck from New York City to Austin, Texas. The entire collection, more than 180,000 images known as press prints, had been amassed by the Magnum photo cooperative, whose members had been among the most important photojournalists of their time. The archive has been sold to the private investment firm for the family of Michael Dell, the Texas computer tycoon. Fortunately, the new owners have reached an agreement with the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin to locate it there, for study and exhibition, for at least the next five years.

Thomas F. Staley, the director of the Ransom Center, said that it planned to scan every image in the collection, of which Magnum itself had scanned fewer than half, in order to order to make them accessible for historical research and exhibitions.

This is just one of several significant archives of vintage visual material, including those of the New York Times and National Geographic Society, which has recently been targeted for digitization. These are invaluable and irreplaceable repositories of our culture and times. This is heartening, especially in light of the expense and labor involved. But it has me worried about the more modest, locally significant collections with which we are all familiar, which are being consigned to the landfills of history, for want of expertise, direction and funding.

For example, an art historian emeritus at the School of the Art Institute had left, as part of his estate, his considerable personal collection of slides, amassed over forty years of teaching. Much of the collection could be found duplicated in any other academic visual resources collection; however, there were pockets of extraordinary images documenting his particular interest in Food, and Food in Art. He was an original foodie, a gourmand, and enthusiastic lover of the sensual rewards of both art and food. He was a popular lecturer locally at culinary institutes, dining establishments and the art school. His slides included photographic documentation of noteworthy meals, the history of food, and the local cuisine found on his many travels, especially in Mexico. There were whole drawers labeled “French Revolution and food” or “Early American feasts” or even “Spam”!

This fascinating collection may never be accessible to the many and diverse audiences that might appreciate it, mostly because of lack of administrative and financial support. Food historians, art historians and other food enthusiasts will perhaps never taste the joys of this particular research and assiduous documentation. Even more frustrating, in a way, is the lack of a way to capture the pedagogy this historian employed, the apposite and humorous observations he made in his lectures. But at least we have the slides as a visual record--for now.

We need to try harder to identify, evaluate and preserve these visual treasure troves close to home. We are in a strong position to be able to advise and direct digital projects to make these images accessible to those who would appreciate them. There is some urgency to this mission, but also the promise of great adventure and astonishment.

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