The Future of Photoarchives

Group portrait of twenty-four people standing in a garden

In late January 2013, representatives of fourteen photoarchives based in Europe and the United States met for a two-day colloquium to discuss the future of their collections. Participants included staff from the Bibliotheca Hertziana, Rome; the Bildarchiv Foto Marburg; The Courtauld Institute, London; the Fondazione Federico Zeri, Bologna; the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles; I Tatti, Florence; L’Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris; the Kunsthistorisches Institut, Florence; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Paul Mellon Centre, London; the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, The Hague; the Warburg Institute, London; the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven; and The Frick Art Reference Library.

The purpose of the colloquium was to develop a strategic plan to realize the common goal of the archives: digitizing the collections and linking all data for maximum accessibility, thereby creating a consolidated resource for art historical research. Four pilot projects that draw on recently digitized materials from all of the institutions resulted from the discussion. These include the establishment of an online resource focused on fifteenth-century Italian anonymous artists that will connect digitized images to crucial documentation culled from the records of each institution; the sharing of metadata for photographs purchased from the Gernsheim Corpus Photographicum of Drawings; the use of digitized images to illustrate Ellis Waterhouse’s classic reference tool, Dictionary of British 18th-Century Painters in Oils and Crayons (1981); and an additional online resource that showcases photographs of historical importance, including pre-World War I photographs of canonical works of art that record their former condition and installation before the outbreak of hostilities.

These projects will allow contributing photoarchives to produce an online “knowledge commons” for the research of works of art in all media, a resource that will stimulate inquiry in a broad spectrum of fields. Initially, the “knowledge commons” will provide access to more than 31 million images that record works of art in varying states at different moments of their history, thus meeting the current demand expressed by students, scholars, and dealers for maximum access to images associated with reliable scholarly information. Once digitized, with global reach to users, the collections of these photoarchives will inevitably transform art historical research.

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