What Does the Photo Archive’s Future Hold?

Archives of pictures kept by libraries or museums have long been crucial resources for humanities studies. Will these archives become obsolete, change, or take on entirely new forms as digital technology develops?

The two-day symposium Photo Archives V: The Paradigm of Objectivity, which will be held at the Getty Center and the Huntington Library on February 25 and 26, 2016, will cover a variety of subjects, including the archive’s evolving role. The relationships between photographic reproduction technologies, archival procedures, and the idea of objectivity will be examined by the speakers with an interdisciplinary perspective and an emphasis on art history.

In preparation for the occasion, I chatted with the symposium’s coordinators, Anne Blacksmith, the Huntington’s reader services librarian, and Tracey Schuster, the Getty Research Institute’s head of permissions and picture archive services. For more info visit

What precisely is a photo archive in the twenty-first century, asks Rebecca Peabody?

According to Tracey Schuster, a photo archive is a collection of images that have been taken, assembled, or developed by a person or organization. A photo archive in the twenty-first century could be analogue, digital, or even both.

An archive’s collection of images may have been put together for a single use, a variety of applications, or for a larger audience. For instance, a student might collect photos, compile them, and store them online for use in future research. It would be a personal photo collection.

A qualified public audience can access collections of images that are compiled by organizations like the Getty Research Institute (GRI) from a variety of sources. These are collections of official photographs.

As Tracey points out, some archives were created by photographers themselves, while others were built by researchers. An archive, for instance, may be the artistic or documentary record of one person or organization, such as a news agency, a scientific research archive, or the archive of a professional photographer. Many of these personal or business archives have been acquired by libraries, museums, and other research institutions for their collections.

Materials from the Getty Research Institute’s Photo Archive are displayed on a table.

Materials from the special collections reading room’s Getty Research Institute Photo Archive, which contains over 2,000,000 images, are arranged for study.

The symposium’s central tenet is that, despite not being impartial, pictures of artwork can still convey some of these meanings. What does this mean, please?

Tracey Schuster: The term “objectivity” in this case refers to the notion that images of artworks serve as fair substitutes for the actual pieces. A piece of art is already one step removed from it when it is reproduced in another medium, such as a photograph, and is consequently an interpretation of the original—that is, not objective. Additionally, photography naturally reinvents three-dimensional works in two dimensions, such as architecture or sculpture.

The idea of objectivity is further undermined by the fact that photographs can be altered in the studio and are very vulnerable to deterioration over time due to exposure to light or other environmental factors. When a photo is turned into a digital file, the image can be changed even more by technology, making it even less like the original subject.

According to Anne Blacksmith, the idea of objectivity extends beyond facsimile reproduction to include the purported objectivity of the camera, the photographer, and even the viewer. Photographers pick, stage, and capture their photos for a variety of reasons, some of which they may not even be aware of. Photography is essentially a product of its historical moment and cultural environment.

One of the symposium attendees, Paul Conway, pointed out in a recent piece that an image’s worth frequently depends on the feelings that it arouses in the observer. Another participant, Joan Schwartz, defined a picture as a manifest of multiple relationships, meanings, and choices with lessons for both visual literacy and archive practice.