Work of digital scholarship

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Screenshot of final project, click on image to visit the site.

Final project for HIST 696 Clio I – Looking chronologically at the Mary Elsie Fox photograph collection

The Mary Elsie Fox photograph collection consists of 423 photographs and one document from a discarded photo album that was found by George Mason University staff and was donated to the University Special Collections and Archives in 2006. The images in the collection date from 1935 to 1959. Less than half of all the images have an indication on them of the date they were created or printed. For the purposes of this project I’ve chosen to look at the images that have specific dates (at the month or day level), arrange them chronologically, and create brief texts to accompany each image set. In addition I created two bar graphs – one that looks at when the photographs were taken, and the other examining who is being photographed how often. My hope for this project is to provide an introduction to the Fox collection, as well as to present common ways of looking at and using vernacular photography for scholarly purposes.

The Fox collection is an excellent example of vernacular photography. It was created for personal use and with no artistic aspirations. In many of the photographs Mary Elsie Fox and her friends are featured socializing and posing in or near Washington D.C.. Some of the images were also taken in Norway and other geographic locations in the United States and Europe that Fox herself may not have visited since she is not as visible in these photographs. As a collection, some of the images could have been taken by Fox, though it is difficult to know for certain, but all of them were collected, stored, and used by her. Many of the images are identified by writing on their verso indicating dates, names, and places, but there are also many that are not identified in any way. Some of the handwriting differs indicating that Fox was not the only one writing descriptions and that she may have received photographs from friends as gifts. These photographs exist as evidence of average people who chose to photograph themselves for their own enjoyment, posterity, and memory.

This collection appealed to me as a possible digital project because it was already fully digitized. This way I would not have to do any scanning to use the images. It was also a good match for a digital project because it consists of abandoned photographs, as such copyright is not much of an issue. I did try to use the images available on George Mason’s digital Luna site , but found screen capture images to be of too low quality. To actually do justice to the images I had to access the originals and create jpeg copies. I was also hoping that the metadata available on Luna would be sufficient in properly identifying which photographs were dated, but I found that the category page did not list every dated image. I had to go back to the original spreadsheet used to upload the data into Luna. Without employee access to this data the project would have been much harder to do. This makes me realize the importance of keeping the metadata not just in Luna, but also in the original Excel spreadsheets. If someone ever wanted to access that data, then it could be made available to them.

For this project I used the free version of the Tumblr theme Paper Stacks, created by FiftyThree and ALLDAYEVERYDAY . This was the second Tumblr I’ve ever created but I found the site intuitive and easy to set up. I chose this theme because of its clean look and interactive features. The piles of images look like a pile of photographs and swiping the top image reveals the next in the stack. I thought this somewhat realistically simulated shuffling and stacking photographs or cards, as you might in real life. The site is also designed to work well with tablets and smart phones and I’m very impressed by the way it looks on these mobile devices. I actually like the tablet look more than the desktop or laptop look. I wanted the presentation of the site to be very visual and image orientated and I think this theme and Tumblr in general is specifically designed with the visual in mind.

It took me a while to determine what was the best way to present the material so that it reflected the chronological structure. Each pile of images is one post. In this way Tumblr is a blogging platform instead of a website creator, though if strategically published the posts can resemble pages on a website. Each post is limited to ten images. Because of this some piles do not contain all of the images from the specific date. I was hoping to date the posts to match the dates of the photographs, but this proved impossible. After multiple attempts and contacting customer support for both the Paper Stacks theme and Tumblr, I was told that Tumblr is aware of this limitation and is seeking to fix it. With post dating not an option, I decided to create a cover image for each pile that featured the date. I also strategically dated each post from the past few months in the order I wanted them to appear on the webpage. Now it is possible to click on the first post – the introduction – and then click on the arrow to the right of the screen and follow the posts in chronological order from November 1941 to December 1959.

The text that accompanies each image is the main scholarly work in the project. Each text block is meant to inform the viewer either specifically about the image they are looking at (if there is any verso textual information that is included) as well as present historical tid bits or general ways of looking at and thinking about vernacular photography. Each text block is meant to accompany the set of images in an obvious way. For example images from February 13, 1948 that depict a baby at her first birthday party have a text block accompanying them that looks at what it means to photograph a baby at her first birthday. In a slightly broader context the text also looks at the social norms that prescribed it appropriate and almost necessary to photograph such a moment in someone’s life. Another example is the set from June 22, 1946. The accompanying quote is about the increase in snapshot production after World War II. This stack of images seemed like that perfect companion to that quote because there were more photographs from that date than any other pile. It was also dated June 1946, so not long after World War II had ended.
A final example is from May 31, 1942 and is a pile of two images, one of cherry blossoms, the other of Taft bridge over Rock Creek Park in Washington D.C. These images were different from many of the photographs in the Fox collection in that they did not contain any people. Focusing on the non-figural subject matter, I was surprised to find an interesting story about the cherry blossoms. After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, four trees were found cut down. This put a moratorium on the annual cherry blossom festival until 1947. The photographed combined with this type of historical data takes on the role of documentary evidence, that even though the cherry blossom was not happening, it was still something that people wanted to go see and felt worthy of photographing.

It is my hope that these sets of texts show viewers how vernacular photographs can be used for scholarly purposes whether for documentary reasons, material culture studies, social histories, family histories, or any other reason. My original thought process for this project started with the Fox material existing in a database in Luna. Since the images have metadata, questions about the images can be asked and quickly ascertained. Questions such as, how many photos were taken on what day and where? And who was present in the photographs the most? These questions represent information that one can get from the data as opposed to looking at all of the images and counting them by hand.

This type of analysis takes one away from the photograph. I used this type of analysis to limit the amount of photographs I would look at. I was unable to fully move away from the photographs at the item level, but I was able to discard hundreds of photographs that I knew wouldn’t be dated quickly. One of the reasons I wanted to present the collection in a new visual way, was to put the attention back on the photographs at the item level but in a more curated context. Each image provides information to the viewer and they are worth close reading, as well as looking at the collection as data that can be manipulated in a database. One of the main questions I was then interested in was how does the data as a whole and the item coexist? By selecting certain images and looking at them closely, I was able to make some connections and notice mistakes in the metadata that would have been difficult to see otherwise. One of the things I would love to do if I was to continue this project would be to look at the undated materials and try and see where they fit chronologically with the dated materials. It would also be interesting to look at the geographic locations where the images were taken and create a map showing the locations.

By ordering the photographs chronologically I found that some images dated from the same month were taken in Europe and the United States, strengthening the hypothesis that they were taken by different people and given to Fox at a later date.

Two bar graphs are also found on the Fox Tumblr site. Originally they were found on separate pages, but there were too many limitations to this set up. The most important of which was that the graphs could not be clicked on and zoomed in on, making them almost impossible to read. To remedy that situation, I posted each graph in a post that was dated to fall at the end of the website. I think these graphs make clear some of the ways one can search the Luna site – by year or person – and could easily be used for different searches – say location or keyword that could then be used for different analyses or presentations of the images.

In addition to the graph posts, there are two other non image posts – the introduction and the about post. The introduction post is found on the first page of the site, and the about page is found on the last page. The intro gives information about the project, Mary E. Fox, the photographs, and the text one will find the within the site. The about page has author information.

Overall I think the site succeeds at presenting visual information in an interesting and engaging way. I would like to have created more text chunks, and perhaps this is something I could add to in the future. I think the site functions as something of an online exhibit for the collection in that it is curated and given supporting text.

One of the possibilities for future scholarly utilization of vernacular photography is found in developing technologies. At the moment it is difficult to do distant reading of mass quantities of visual materials, but the technology is constantly evolving. With so much visual information located in vernacular photography – documentary, social, and relating to self-identification – it seems reasonable to think that we may be able to search for patterns at the macro level that could tell us a lot about ordinary people during the 20th century and into the future. Part of how this could be a possibility is to teach computers how to look and identify facial, dress, and building patterns. Another alternative is to rely on textual descriptions created by owners, collectors, authors, archivists, and scholars about the photographs. Distant reading could also be done through these descriptions of the images, again with the goal to see what patterns and trends emerge through ordering and playing with large amounts of data.

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