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July 20th, 2005, 06:16 PM

July 20, 2005
Amassing a Treasury of Photography

In 1999 two proud powerhouses of photography - the George Eastman House in Rochester and the International Center of Photography in Midtown - began to acknowledge that they needed each other.

More specifically, officials at the Eastman House - the world's oldest photography museum, with more than 400,000 photos and negatives, dating back to the invention of the medium - felt that they needed a New York City presence. And the International Center, a younger institution with a smaller collection, wanted access to Eastman's vast holdings, which include work by Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy.

The collaboration resulted in several joint exhibitions, including "Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes," still on display at the center, and a show that ended earlier this year of the striking photographs of New Orleans prostitutes from the early 1900's by E. J. Bellocq, images that were drawn roughly half from Eastman and half from the center.

But now both institutions are at work on an ambitious project to create one of the largest freely accessible databases of masterwork photography anywhere on the Web, a venture that will bring their collections to much greater public notice and provide an immense resource for photography aficionados, both scholars and amateurs.

The Web site - Photomuse.org, now active only as a test site, with a smattering of images - is expected to include almost 200,000 photographs when it is completed in the fall of 2006, and as both institutions work out agreements with estates and living photographers, the intention is to add tens of thousands more pictures.

Many iconic images, the kind long found on posters and greeting cards - Stieglitz's shot of a spindly tree framed by New York office towers on a rainy spring day; Weegee's teeming Coney Island hordes; Lewis Hine's "Icarus Atop Empire State Building" - will be joined by thousands of other works by eminent artists that the general public has rarely had an opportunity to see. There will also be collections of lesser-known photographers like Roman Vishniac, James VanDerZee and Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

The creators say the goal is to organize the site so that works can be found not only by the name of the photographer but also in many other ways. For example, a Hine picture of an Italian immigrant couple could be found under the headings of "immigration," or "Italian-Americans" or "Ellis Island" or "urban photography" or under the headings of exhibitions where the photograph has been shown through the years.

Each photograph could also be categorized in more technical ways, such as whether it was an albumen print, for example, or a gelatin silver print or even by what type of camera it was taken with.

"We didn't want simply to create a scholarly site only for researchers," said Willis E. Hartshorn, the director of the center. "We wanted something that would allow anyone with the interest to easily explore the collections of both institutions and their extraordinary depths in terms of the history of photography and the impact it's had on our culture."

While there are now dozens of growing digital databases of photography on the Web, many - like Corbis and Getty Images - are commercial sites that do not allow the public unfettered access to their collections. The Photomuse site will join others, like the digital collections of the Library of Congress, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, England, that are beginning to create what amounts to a huge, free, virtual photography museum on the Web.

The project, financed in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, is expected to cost $800,000 initially and more later as additional images and documentary information are added to the site. Edward Earle, a curator and the director of information systems at the International Center of Photography, said images of most pictures on the site would be modestly sized, about 300 pixels on the longest side, though higher-resolution images of photos in the public domain would be available.

Anthony Bannon, the director of Eastman House, said one of the biggest hurdles encountered by the project - after overcoming the initial cultural resistance of both institutions to share their collections and expertise - has been converting the images of both Eastman and the center. onto a single computer system. (So far, he said, Eastman has digitized almost 140,000 of its photos and center about 30,000.)

"It's not just like pushing a button and the images slide over," he said, adding that copyright issues with many photographers could also keep many images off the Web for years. "Some are generous and understand the positive result by having the images seen on our Web site but others are worried about losing opportunities for revenue," Mr. Bannon said. "All of us are still learning about how the Web can be used, I think."

August 5th, 2005, 05:31 PM
this is good news i think. I grew up in Rochester and the Eastman collection really is wonderful. His legacy is evident all over Rochester, which at one time was a very important industrial and cultural city. Too bad no one goes there anymore as it has suffered the same fate as the other upstate cities. It was a shame to have that huge picture collection sitting up there inaccessible to the masses passing through NYC.

January 25th, 2006, 03:20 PM
I am yet to visit Eastman House but I know of his history and am greatly inspired in my own work by the great photographers of the past.