Learning how to create an unbiased space for content that can be easily discovered is not a simple or easy discovery. If you google how to a take a good portrait photo odds are that you will not find a concrete answer. Sure, you may get some tips about using a lighting, shadows and angles, but none of these things will give you the tangible skill necessary to capture the essence of your sitter. Like portraiture, archiving can be understood as an art, or at the very least, a technique.
I am early in my practice of the archival form and far from an authority. But, in order to aid your quest for archival prowess, I want to talk about three photographs and the data that was created to archive them. Each of these records does great work to further the scholarship and body of knowledge on Black portraiture. However, the catalogue information for each picture could be improved.
My analysis will concentrate on the titles of each photograph. This is because the title of the photograph acts as a primary identifier within the archive. The title, in many ways, becomes the photographs new name. When future scholars cite one of these photographs, the photograph will be referred to by the descriptive title that the cataloguer has created. By focusing on the title, we will garner a better understanding of archival practices and this background knowledge will enable us to become better archivists.
Before I discuss the catalogued information for these photographs and how I believe it could be improved, I want to thank the institutions that brought these images into their collections. The Library Company of Philadelphia, the Library of Congress and the National Museum to African American History and Culture are changing the content held in American archives by researching and digitizing photographs, research institutions. By changing the content, these institutions are shifting and broadening the kinds of historical interpretations that can be constructed. Each of these images depict Black subjects that the broader body of American history often neglects. I am encouraged that images like these are being taken care of by such a remarkable institutions. I want to be clear, no fault should be placed on the cataloguers for any critique of this archival data. The way we catalogue information is a reflection of the society we live in. It is imperative that we acknowledge how important photographs are to our historical archives. My critiques below are only to help future cataloguers and are in no way meant to reflect poorly on the collecting institutions.
Physical Description: 1 photographic print: gelatin silver; 11 X 13 cm (4 x 5 in.)
Description: Portrait of an African American nanny in a white summer dress and hat posed with her white charge, a girl and a boy in beach warear. They stand on steps near “The Criterion,” a hair dressing parlor in Atlantic City. The parlor operated from 1907 until 1908, first at the Hotel Islesworth, then the Hotel Bothwell.
Notes: Title supplied by cataloguer.
Location: Library Company of Philadelphia| Print Department| 5 x 7 Photographs-Unid. Photographer-Recreation [P.9619.3]
Accession number: P.9619.3
The title of this image did not seem inherently problematic to me in class. There is a trope in American portrait photography of taking portraits of the nanny with the children that are in their care. As a historian, I could even find this title to be helpful. What if I want to conduct research on the African American nanny after the civil war? Or on this body of photographs in general? A title like this makes this content easily discoverable and accessible.
But, it also removes the sitter’s agency. The woman standing in this photograph is more than a nanny. To define her as such is to assume that is the most important aspect of her identity. It is also something that we, as cataloguers, cannot know with certainty from the image alone. Maybe, the cataloguer of this particular photograph had additional information from research. If that is the case, that would great information to include in the photographs descriptive field. But, as we see above, there is nothing cited to suggest a historical record in which this woman was identified and proven to be the nanny of these children.
While, the information that she could have been a nanny is useful for researchers, it could be accessible in another part of the photographs catalogued data. Maybe in the description, in the subject headings or in the key word field for the photograph. As a cataloguer, your data inscribes history. Archivists construct the labels that define historic content. The work of an archivist is a powerful and one word could shift the entire interpretation of an object.
Attention should be made to the calling out of race in titles. This is a complex issue and one that you should think carefully about as you build your archival practice. You will find that many institutions will call out race in archived materials title field. In this photo, African American and two white children are identified in the title. Using, “African American,” defines the sitter as American and of a particular race. If there is evidence in the image to suggest both of these are relevant to the image, the use of the term may be appropriate. However, be careful. Race and country of origin are not always identifiable from the the visual evidence in a photograph alone. If you use background information to draw these conclusions, be sure to include that in your descriptive field. This is a grey area, the cataloguer must give credence to their subject using the information that they have. However, it is important to emphasize that as cataloguers we must work vigilantly to ensure we do not impose our own assumptions on subjects we are archiving.
Medium: 1 photograph : ruby ambrotype, sixth-plate, hand-colored ; 9.0 x 8.1 cm (case)
Call Number: AMB/TIN no. 1321 [P&P]
Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Notes: Rinhart, no. 119. Modern handwritten note in case: Slave nanny/white child image came from an estate sale somewhere in the flat lands delta area of Arkansas. Likely from one of the following Arkansas towns: Helena, West Memphis, Forest City, Elaine, Brinkley, Cotton Plant, Clarendon, Pine Bluff. Purchase; Bruce Kusrow; 1994; (DLC/PP-1994:035).
Published as “Nursemaid with her charge” in When they were young : a photographic retrospective of childhood from the Library of Congress / Robert Coles. Carlsbad, Calif. : Kales Press …, c2002, p. 85.
Exhibited: When they were young, Library of Congress, 2002-2003.
Exhibited: “Only skin deep” at the International Center for Photography, N.Y., 2003-2005.
Here we see minor adjustments to word choice and language in the title. The title reads, [African American woman holding a white child]. Unlike the previous photograph, the woman is not defined as a nanny. This cataloguer again, made the decision to call out race and suggest a country of origin. The institution has a practice of calling out race in the titles and the practice could be grounded in a broader research or institutional practices and mission. As a cataloguer, you may decide to call out race in the titles of your images. If you do decide to call out race, be sure to call out race for all sitters, as we see with this entry
What is missing from this photograph is a description. Again, it is not within the institution’s general practices to include a description. A lot is lost in not including a descriptive field. As a researcher searching for information, the style of dress could be crucial to the key word searches I conducted. Without a description field, those searches would never lead me to this photograph.
Subject of: Unidentified Child or Children
Medium: silver amalgam, silver on copper photographic plates
Dimensions: H x W (Image): 5 1/2 x 4 1/4 in. (14 x 10.8 cm) H x W (Closed): 5 15/16 × 4 7/8 × 3/4 in. (15.1 × 12.4 × 1.9 cm) H x W (Open): 5 15/16 × 9 5/8 × 3/8 in. (15.1 × 24.4 × 1 cm)
Type: daguerreotypes portraits
Description: A cased, black-and-white image of an African American boy holding a white male baby on his lap.Link to
Before, I discuss the catalogue data above, it is important to note how difficult it was to find this photograph. This institution made a choice not to include the terms, nanny, caregiver, nursemaid or childcare anywhere in the data for this photo. Previously, I took issue with including this information in the descriptive title and I stand by that point. But, the information needs to be included somewhere because it is important historical background on the photographs.
Descriptive titles for unknown objects must reflect the content they attempt to describe so that the content is discoverable to users. The titles must also avoid imposing the cataloguers assumptions onto the content they are describing. It is important that both of these objectives be acknowledged in your cataloguing practice.
I am sure, you the cataloguer can already begin to predict what may be problematic with the title of this photograph. Before you read, see if you can predict what I am going to say. Here is the title given to the photo by NMAAHC:
“Daguerreotype of an African American child holding a white baby.”
By putting age in the title of this photograph, the cataloguer chose age to use age as one of the identifying qualities the image. As a novice exploring this catalogue, I have no way of knowing why one sitter is known to be a child and the other a baby. Accurately identifying age in historic photographs is difficult. There may be clear evidence in this photograph that the sitter is a child and baby. For example, the outfit that each sitter wears may be indicative of the age of children from this period. If that is the case, that background information should be supplied in another field, such as the description.
As cataloguers, sometimes we may forget that the photographic details we use to identify an image that are clear us may not be apparent to all users of our data. The outfits these sitters are wearing may clearly indicate their age and gender. However, no rational these given to this identifications in the descriptive fields. As an archivist, always try to help your researcher understand what you see, never assume they know.
I like to dabble in photography and I think most of us at least have some experience with the act of self-portraiture in the form of selfies. To improve my photographs I look at images to refine what I like and what I don’t like. I then try to replicate these methods in my own work. As a novice cataloguer understanding the body of theory surrounding unbiased archival practices is imperative. But, it is also important to learn from what already exists. You’ve already taken a huge step forward in understanding your archival process. Now, keep going. Keep analyzing and sharing. It is only by working together that we can break down biases in archives and ensure content is accurately presented for generations to come.
By: Carrie Greif
December, 6 2017