Sorting through the catalog
The images that a photographer accumulates over time are an extensive collection of creative acts, or at least, partial expressions of ideas. Any photographer who makes images for a living…or to live…creates thousands of tiny images viewable as negatives in plastic sheets or 8 x 10in contact prints. The process of archiving and cataloging acetate negatives requires great care; maintaining particular environmental conditions and having a system of cataloguing images are basic necessities if the photographer plans on retrieving and reprinting. Many photographers go so far as to log camera exposures, printing exposures, and any chemical treatments applied to the print. A contact sheet was at least marked with selected images and personal annotations. More adventurous souls might even cross-reference their negatives, rather than simply file them chronologically. Regardless of the system, viewing and retrieving images on acetate rolls of film is an arduous task with many built in obstacles.
Contact sheets or negative files are usually stored in binders or hanging folders. Since they come on strips, they are usually cut down to five or six images per strip and placed along others from the same roll; the basis for initial cataloguing is per roll and is therefore chronological. What it comes down to is that, unless the photographer plans to cut up each individual frame, with acetate negatives there is just one way to view the images. Even going through the task of slicing down to each frame, the photographer is still bound by being able to select only one topic. While there are duplicating filing techniques that allow some flexibility, it is clear how cumbersome and complex the retrieval process can be. Viewing sequences of images is further hindered by how the images were exposed on the roll of film; the photographer is forced to first consider each roll and may only view each sheet separately. The exposure is always associated with those made before and after it, unless the negative is filed on it’s own. There is way of thinking in how the photographer files those images away in their head that completely unravels with digital photography.
Digital technology allows a photographer to have one image viewable through an unlimited number of categories using keywords that are tagged to the image. Within those categories, the images may be sorted a variety of ways, or simply manually put in sequence. A photographer has at their fingertips an immediate way to sort, select, and view thousands of images. An image can be instantly associated with another, exposed decades apart, by sharing a common characteristic defined by the photographer. The result is a previously unheard of level of control over how the images are viewed and combined.
The impact of the digital catalog, other than ease of access, is that of association. Like GIS maps graphically depict and apply a variety of criteria to a geographic area, linkage of images through keywords allows a photographer to discover new associations and trends in their work. Over time this can lead to a deeper understanding of the images, create a pool of images for montage, or allow a photographer to experiment with very personal ways of threading images together.