A paper originally given at the Society of American Archivists Annual Conference 1989
I would very much appreciate feedback from readers on this piece. To contact me, see http://home.comcast.net/~pearcemoses/.
The idea of a theaurus is elegantly simple: one draws up a list of terms and describes the relationships between them. Those relationships may be synonyms, homonyms, broader terms, or narrower terms, to name a few. Within the archival and library community, the concept of thesauri has taken on the additional connotation of a controlled vocabulary to facilitate information retrieval. Thesauri are tools for ensuring as close a match as possible between an inquiry and the documents that contain the answer by establishing a common language.(2) When asking for information about cars a thesaurus--such as the LCSH--will direct us to automobiles. But the theasurus also points us to broader concepts (transportation) and narrower concepts (station wagons).
Unfortunately, creating a thesaurus is not a simple task. Linguist Louis Salomon warns us of potential problems.
Every utterance is an event, and no two events are precisely alike. The extreme view, therefore, is that no word ever means the same thing twice.(3)
Our language reflects our experience. That we are able to communicate at all reflects the commonality of our experiences, but misunderstandings--ranging from a missed nuance to hostile conflict--reminds us of our ultimate alienation from each other. As the world and our experience of it changes, so does our vocabulary. Beauty does not mean the same thing today that it did in the nineteenth century, nor does it carry the same connotation.
Much more serious a problem for thesaurus construction is the ad hoc nature of language; words grow in an evolutionary fashion as needed rather than being established in an integrated, rational manner. Forcing our chaotic language into an artificial structure is much less like forcing a round peg in a square hole than running mashed potatoes through a sieve: you may get a few big lumps out, but it's still mashed potatoes.
In the process of writing a photographic thesaurus with Diane Vogt O'Connor, a variety of interesting problems surfaced. While those problems are interesting in themselves--being likely topics for photohistory papers--, their solutions will directly affect the nature of the thesaurus and its usefulness. I'd like to present to you some of those problems and our considered solutions.
One of the first problems was to determine who needs the thesaurus and what they will use it for. Lenore Sarasan has pointed out that many computer catalog systems have failed because they are unable to answer the questions required of them. The double tragedy of this is that much money and effort was lost inputting extensive information into computer systems.(4) The moral is: An accummulation of data alone is not enough; rather that information must be structured in a fashion that is usable.
The original purpose of the thesaurus was to establish authority forms for indexing a survey project at the Smithsonian Institution. The survey is directed towards typical researchers at the Smithsonian. Those researchers reflect a broad cross-section of the intellectual community, ranging from art historians to zoologists. Some--probably most--researchers are looking for representative images of a subject in any format; but other researchers are looking for examples of photographic processes and techniques, and care little about what the subject is.
As workers surveyed the collections, they added notes about the terms to help clarify usage: 'A carbon print is characterized by such and such; they date from such and then....' These notes are not a traditional part of a thesaurus, and often would be considered more appropriate to an encyclopedia. However, this additional information served an important authority function because it reduced error in assigning terms. The thesaurus became an authoritative list as well as an authority, serving as a tool to assist in the identification and dating of processes. (I'll be talking about these notes in detail later.)
Many curators and archivists outside the Smithsonian became interested in the thesaurus. They wanted a consistant language for describing collections. Curators and archivists found the notes invaluable in identifying processes with which they were unfamiliar. A precise description of process and technique could provide clues on the creation of a photograph and could also suggest preferred preservation techniques.
The desire of these outside curators and archivists to have an authoritative list underscored the need for the extensive notes about terms. Over and over we heard people asking for this kind of information to help identify and date images.
These curators and archivists expressed two conflicting sentiments. One group wanted a simple list, while the second wanted a list that was precise and accurate. A descriptive list is an abstraction of the things it describes; as such, it is a simplification. It is an axiom that any system that perfectly reflects its object is as complex as its object. The thesaurus will have to strike a balance between over-simplification and complexity. The manner in which this dilemma is solved will ultimately be the measure of the thesaurus' utility.
The problem may also be stated: How shall we describe photographs? We've all seen exhibition labels that succinctly describe a photograph as a "gelatin print" or a "silver print." Gelatin can be used in a dozen or more processes, and silver is the basis for probably hundreds of different variants. Few curators would be likely to use the phrase "gold-toned silver chloro-bromide gelatin POP print;" yet that is the level of precise description that other curators desperately desire.
The choice of term to describe process reflects a division within the photographic community that is nearly as old as the medium itself--the conflict between technicians and artists. Technicians are concerned for the mechanics of how the image was made, artists care more about the aesthetics of the image. When I was a student in photojournalism we were learning densitometry, the zone system, and customizing our developers to obtain the perfect print; every one of us shot our Tri-X at our customized speed and developed it in an idiosyncratic manner. The art department, however, decreed that Tri-X was to be developed for eight minutes--regardless of the temperature of the developer or the exposure index used.
Of course, the best photographers are good technicians making aesthetically important statements, and the history of photography must account for both its technical and aesthetic evolution. As William Crawford points out in Keepers of the Light, building on Ivins, the syntax of different photographic processes dictates to a large extent the aesthetic statement that can be made.(5) If we as archivists are to put historians interested in technology in touch with documents supporting their research, we must have an adequate language to provide that link.
Unfortunately, most histories of photography reduce technology to a few simple fenceposts: the invention of photography (the daguerreotype and the Talbotype); Archer's invention of the wet-collodion process; Eastman and the snapshot; gum prints and the pictorialists; 35mm and reportage; and color. Six processes and a format.
Newhall, for instance, gives one of 294 pages to the Kodak and snapshot photography. Its invention is noted, as well as its acceptance into society. However, its development or on-going significance is ignored, and if the reader didn't know better it could be assumed to have been a fad in the 1890s.
Artists are not the only people in photography. Some of the most important inventors receive only passing mention: LeClerc, Eder, and Mees to name a few. Where would Ernst Haas be without Mannes and Godowsky, two musicians who invented Kodachrome? How many people credit Stieglitz' greatness to his extraordinary vision, forgetting that he spent years studying photochemistry with Vogel; it was his technical mastery that allowed him to make such aesthetically profound statements.
A typical strategy of thesaurus construction is to extract vocabulary from the literature of the field and systematize it. This is a very rational approach, and it has been proven for entymology. Hugh Kenner asks, What did oinope mean in classical Greek? In Homer it is traditionally translated as "wine-dark," as in the "wine- dark sea." But he also used it for oxen, and Sophocles used it for the forearm. But "oxen sweat; so do arms. The sea too flashes back light from its fluent surface. May that word point not to color but to gleam?"(6)
But collocation as an analytical technique for photographic terminology is is, I believe, fundamentally flawed. The vocabulary is too new and unsettled. Many historically important terms never achieved wide use, while other terms are notoriously corrupt for imprecise use.
As one example, think of Stieglitz, who in the popular mind is synonymous with straight photography. That view, supported by the writing of Stieglitz' and his commentators, is very distorted. Studying his prints one comes up with a very different impression.
The images themselves suggest a very different understanding of Stieglitz' photography. "Straight photography" won't do to adequately talk about his work. We need terms like Sabattier effect, Mackie line, retouched, and localized development.
Simple concepts begin to break down on closer inspection. If "gelatin print" won't do, what will? How shall we talk about our images or index them for access?
Much of the literature of photography is written by art historians. The terminology they use tends to be too imprecise--I've already given the example of the reduction of photographic technology to seven terms and the use of "straight photography," which is more about photographic politics than photography. But more significantly, these historians do not have an adequate background in photographic chemistry to use the terminology correctly. The best and most common example is the confusion between the Sabattier effect and solarization. Many people use the term microphotography to talk about photomicrography.
To complicate matters another large body of photographic literature is written by photographers, who William Jenkins points out know less about art historians' vocabulary than art historians know of technology.
A humorous example of imprecise terminology is taken from Bruce Handy's "The Rise and Fall of a Great American Buzzword."(7) After looking at the many often conflicting ways post-modernism is used in the literature, he asked
What do these people mean? We aren't sure. More to the point, they aren't sure. And just to make sure, we've tried to track down some of the writers . . . in order to discuss the postmodern question.
Elle editors were unwilling to explain why ski parkas were postmodern. "We're busy," complained a spokeswoman.
"Mr. Safire hasn't really addressed himself to the question," said Safire's New York Times assistant in resposed to our request for an interview regarding Paul Simon's postmodernism. "You can read about it in his column if it becomes timely."
"It has become kind of vague and catchall, hasn't it," replied Ben Bantley when asked about his reference to the postmodern age. "The quote [from Schnabel] got distored at the end--it's a reference to a Bardot sort of thing."
Lapham explained his use of the word postmodern to modify economy: "It was just by way of analogy. It's just a phrase, a term of art. As I understand it, postmodern art is largely minimalist. Right?"
Handy suggests that postmodern is "culturespeak, short for Stuff That's Cool in 1988. It's the current version of groovy--except that using it makes you sound smart."
Think postmodern is a fluke? Get five photohistorians in a room and ask them to define pictorialism.
A new art, photography developed a language rapidly. With the exception of Fox Talbot and to a lesser extent John Herschel, the experimentors and inventors of photography were not etymologists. As a result, they came up with odd terms to describe their results, frequently unaware that the same term had already been used before. Some terms were imprecise from the begining: there is no ivory in an ivorytype, nor is there tin in a tintype. A ferrotype is more generally known as a tintype, but Robert Hunt used the same term to describe a proess he also referred to as energiatype. Other processes were never named, per se: Eder describes variants of the uranium process but gives us no nomenclature for the variants (although one was known as the Wothlytype).
In floundering about for adequate descriptive terminology, I'd like to throw in another problem before I begin to suggest some solutions. Many curators want these terms as access points in their catalogs. This use may also have bearing on the form of terminology and strategies for description.
In the best of all possible worlds, we would have a thesaurus integrated into an automated catalog. When asking for a non-standard term (e.g., gelatin silver) the computer would respond with the standard form if there was no ambiguity cause by synonyms. Where ambiguity prevents a one-to-one correlation between terms, the computer would offer assistance in clarifying the request, "When you asked for ferrotype, did you want the process described by Hunt in 1845 also known as energiatype (rare) or the variant of the collodion process known as tintype (common)." The computer could also assist us in being more or less specific, moving up and down a hierarchical arrangement of terms.
Regretably, we live in a far from perfect world where many collections cannot afford a simple PC clone, much less the sophisticated software and hardware necessary to support a fully-integrated catalog. Of the 300-odd collections I surveyed for Photographic Collections in Texas: A Union Guide, most were still operating on card-based systems. Of those with computers, most were capable only of left-sort retrievals--not that far ahead of cards.
The choice of form of term can potentially provide in a manual system some of the features of an AI thesaurus integrated into your catalog. For example, if the final image material (that component which makes the image visible in the photograph) is consistently used as the first part of the term for process, like processes will be grouped hierarchically; silver, carbon, uranium processes sorted together, regardless of binder.
Another form that can be used to group related heading is inverting terms. Inverted forms run contrary to current library practice of natural language order. Natural order is a vast improvement over some of the obscure forms of past headings, but it has its disadvantages. Compound terms beginning with a generic are best inverted. As a case in point, one colleague of mine got enormously frustrated looking up first the School of Art, then the College of Art, and then the Department of Art in the phonebook; frankly I can't ever remember what the correct form is, and the phone company knew that most people couldn't, so they put the number under Art, School of. This inversion also places the information next to related divisions such as the Art Museum.
But there is revolution assumed in this idea: we would no longer refer to albumen prints. Rather, we'd refer to silver albumen prints. And that half of the community that is backward, calling them gelatin silver prints would have to see the error of their ways and call them silver gelatin. Such a strategy would abandon the terms as used in the literature for neologisms.
Many resist neologisms. I would argue in their favor for several reasons. First, photographic terminology is entirely neologisms. Talbot used photogenic drawing and calotype--words of his own invention--to mean photography--a word coined by Herschel. Photographers generally used the word daguerreotype and photography interchangably for the first few decades of the medium. Many photographers invented names for minor variants of a technique or process as a marketing device. And of course, there are all those tradenames. Did you know Dye Transfer was trademarked? And can you tell me about the gold in Kodak's new VR films?
Second and more important, we are using language in an artificial fashion for access, and neologistic terms may be more useful. An aristotype can use a gelatin or collodion binder and it can use a silver chloride or silver bromide emulsion; four combinations to produce four distinct things for which there are no venacular terms. Pannotype has similar problems.
That researchers won't know where to look for a heading is not a viable objection to neologisms. If we're worth our salt as archivists, we should be providing adequate cross- references. But just as important, if headings are formed according to rules, those rules can be taught to the researchers.
What many curators desire is some order to this chaos, much as Roget underscored an order to English. That order may be achievable only in an artificial language used for indexing purposes. A classic example is LC's neologisms photoprints, photonegatives, and phototransparencies. The artificial language I am suggesting will not be true neologisms, but compound terms of existing vocabulary assembled in a structured fashion. Using this notion, we would not use the neologism photoprint, but form a compound photographic print.
In discussing this strategy with curators, I have received a two-edged response. When writing, they would never say "silver albumen;" silver is assumed (even though there are quite a few different processes that use albumen). But these curators didn't object to using such terminology in a catalog as a retrieval term.
In fact, what is needed is not a new language to talk about photographs. When those curators say albumen print, we know exactly what is meant: a silver albumen chloride POP gold-toned on paper. What is needed is a strategy to adequately describe a photograph--a manner to form compound terms in a systematic fashion. One strategy that we have been working with is to name the configuration (or format), such as print, stereograph, or cabinet; then the process formed from the final image material and binder, such as silver gelatin, dye gelatin; and finally any variant in the process, such as chloro-bromide, gold-toned, or hand-tinted. For those of you who are familiar with MARC, the configuration/format would go into 655 and the process and variant would be placed in 755. I would also like to see a change in the rules for the 300 format so that terms for configuration could be used in 300 $a and process and variant in 300 $b.
We've only touched the surface. Where do we work in such concepts as localized development, burning and dodging, and Sabattier effect? In fact, keyword access to narrative descriptions could be a very handy access tool as order is insignificant.
All this is getting pretty complex, and there are those in the audience who are among those curators saying "I want a simple list." In fact, I need a simple list: the focus of my collection is regional history, not the history of photography. The chance that I'll get a patron in the Arizona Room looking for a Wothlytype is about the same as being struck by lightning. The chance of my having a Wothlytype is about the same.
We can answer the need for simplicity by making a simple observation: Although there are hundreds of processes and variants on each of those, most are rare. The vast majority of photographs can be described by approximately fifty terms. Most collections wouldn't worry about the variants of those fifty terms; they'll be happy as a clam in mud with "silver gelatin" without worrying that its more precisely "silver gelatin bromoiodide selenium toned photographic transparency."
Some collections need and want that more precise terminology. I believe single integrated list can accommodate all terms. Having a single list that can be used for both simple and complex terms is important. If major collections--those most likely to need complex terms-- do not adopt the standard, it is significantly devalued.
From the point of view of a thesaurus constructor, there is a simple solution. Create a thesaurus of terms that are to be assembled into more complex terms by the end user (post-coordination). Guidelines for assemblying terms will be included in the thesaurus. End users can decide the level of description needed for their collections by assembling as precise a term as necessary. Simple and complex terms can be mixed even in the same database.
When I first started using Chenall's Nomenclature I used to whine, "This is too hard. It's too complex." But after I had been working with it for a while, and after I had begun to construct a thesaurus myself, I began to understand that the complexity was necessary: a complex problem may have a simple, elegant solution (Occam's razor), but a simple solution is not to be confused with a simplistic solution (i.e., denying the complexity of the problem).
I do not believe for a moment that we have solved the problem of describing photographs. I have described what we believe is a good solution: to provide a terminology and a strategy for applying that terminology according to need in a manner that maintains relationships between variant forms of headings.
I leave this problem to touch on a second concern: scope notes. A thesaurus without scope notes is merely a list of words. I have already mentioned how many curators wanted extensive notes to help guide the application of terms.
Many of the lists of processes are simple not because it meets the curator's need, but it is all that they have been capable of creating. In speaking with many of these individuals, they are seeking a more complete list. However, giving them the list without the definitions is leaving them in the dark: they will not know how or when to use the terms.
We come back to the questions I asked earlier: How do we describe photographs? What are we looking at?
Many of us do not know. In preparing the thesaurus I am learning about many processes for the first time. I hope to share my knowledge through the thesaurus by recording information I have unearthed. This information not only increases the accuracy of the terminology by defining it and restricting its precise use, the notes may begin to provide information about the photograph.
A scope note can contain a wide variety of information. For example, date of invention. If the known date of a photograph antedates the introduction of a process, the photograph must be another process. But more likely, process dates will contribute to more accurate dating of undated images.
Any information that will lead to the accurate application of a term is appropriate to the thesaurus. If this information is carefully researched, the thesaurus becomes more than a tool for authority, but acquires a secondary value on its own as an authoritative source. James Bower has developed this idea at the Getty Art History Information Program.(8)
The information is extremely valuable to archivists processing their collections. Notch codes in sheet film can help identify if a negative is nitrate, diacetate, or a more stable safety base. Not only has the thesaurus told us what to call the object, the precise identification tells the archivist how to preserve the material.
The thesaurus is limited in how much detail it can give. David Horvath's study of diacetate negatives runs some fifty pages and is one of the most brilliant studies in photographic technology I've run into. Would be that every entry in our thesaurus could be so painstakingly researched and thoroughly detailed.
The notion of how we describe photographs is important if we are to be linking our patrons and our materials. Traditional access points by name and subject--covered by Andy and Barbara--have a history of convention and established authorities. Yet, access by form and genre headings is still evolving. These are important new access points. In the same way textual criticism has expanded our understanding of literature, form and genre is becoming a new area of scholarship in photohistory.
(2). Heln M. Townley and Raplph Gee, Thesaurus-making: Grow Your Own Word Stock (London: Andre Deutsch, 1980), p. 18.
(3). Quoted by Charles Laird in Word.
(4). "Why Museum Computer Projects Fail," Museum News, January/February 1981.
(5). The Keepers of Light: A Photographic History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes (Dobbs Ferry, New York: Morgan and Morgan, 1979).
(6). "Curtains for Lady Buxley: The Humanities Computing Yearbook; 1988," Byte 14:10 (October 1989), p. 360.
(7). Spy, April 1988. Emphasis and interpolation's Handy's.
(8). Bower presented "Authority files vs. "Authoritative files: Issues of control, maintenance, and application for museums" at the Museum Computer Network Annual Conference, 1988.