The article begins with a review of the existing literature on the photographic archive. Since the first writings in the 80s (Didi-Huberman, Allan Sekula and John Tagg) that studied the uses and abuses of the photographic archive in the service of institutions of surveillance, control and punishment, as a tool of oppression and objection. These first authors approach the issue from a materialistic perspective, prioritizing issues such as ownership and control over photographic production as an element that generates meaning.

The author of the essay makes an interesting annotation, pointing out how these archives, despite being at the service of what she describes as “apparatus”, the very creation of the archives is subject to the subjectivity of the people who worked in them (photographers, archivists, editors, curators).

It was not until the 1990s that the first studies dealing with the “commercial archive” and the industry derived from these uses appeared. Helen Wilkinson (1997) on advertising agencies, J.Abbott Miller (1999) on the development of stock agencies. In 2003, Frosh published a seminal essay “The Image Factory: Consumer Culture. Photography and the Visual Content Industry” which no longer cares as much about the historical narrative as in the previous authors, but analyses the impact that this image industry has on consumer culture.

While the materialistic approach of the first essays focused on technological issues related to the archive (cabinets, index cards, etc.) exhibited little variation during the study period, recent studies are subject to changes that occur rapidly and limit the scope of validity of the studies to a few years. As an archivist herself in recent times, the author is an informed witness to these dramatic changes in current working methods and hence her interest in studying the archival issue.

While the materialistic approach of the first essays focused on technological issues related to the archive (cabinets, index cards, etc.) exhibited little variation during the study period, recent studies are subject to changes that occur rapidly and limit the scope of validity of the studies to a few years. As an archivist herself in recent times, the author is an informed witness to these dramatic changes in current working methods and hence her interest in studying the archival issue.

The process of digitizing image archives began in 1990. The author distinguishes between digitization (affecting images and their processing) and computerization (affecting people and processes). The first stage of digitization is the creation of a digital catalogue that replaces traditional cards. Subsequently, the possibility of including a low resolution image in the card or a link to a reproducible image in high resolution is added. Tedious manual searches in card directories are replaced by faster and more efficient searches.

Each institution adopted a different strategy to digitize its archive depending on different factors, from user accessibility to budget issues. Once users had access to a search interface, the figure of the archivist mediating between the user and the archive is no longer needed. As the metadata contained in the archive is insufficient, if in the analogue archive the archivist was the mediator between the user and the image, in the digital archive a mediation between the image and the system is required (Artificial Intelligence?).

Sekulas commented that the photographic archive used to be an invisible apparatus, in the sense that all physical paraphernalia only becomes evident at a certain distance, but goes unnoticed beyond its function of storing and preserving documents. In the digital archive, servers and algorithms operating from behind are certainly invisible beyond the perceptible user interface of the database.

In relation to the analog file, the author of the article comments about the incident with a Tate Gallery archive that was “rescued from the skip” or the case of a V&A archive that ran out of luck and was destroyed by an employee’s decision. These events were reported by the British newspaper “The Guardian” in what it classified as a scandal, adding that for historians destroying archives should be inconceivable. This leads to the question of the value of the material that accumulates in museums and what should be considered an archive:

An archive is, among other things, a repository of things that a culture considers valuable, while a scrapheap is an indiscriminate pile of worthless things.

The distinction between the two concepts is not as simple as it may initially appear, and the fact that two museum institutions have discarded these archives is certainly contrary to logic. It is also interesting that the press has denounced this, assuming the concern for a class of cultural objects that should be saved.

This concern of the press (The Guardian) about the fate of analogical archives was demonstrated in the exhibition organized in 2008 when the institution moved to a new and more modern venue. Curated by Luke Todd and titled “The Lost Art of the Picture Library” it showed a selection of 70 photographs taken from a collection of more than 100,000 photographs. The catalogue showed next to each photograph the archival notes on the back of the photograph, some of which were visually more attractive than the image itself. This fascination with archival signs and inscriptions is symptomatic of the concern for the (analog) photographic object that seems to have developed in parallel with the dematerialization of photography that digital technology provoked.

Regarding the fact that the exhibition catalogue was printed on paper instead of creating an electronic version, the author argues that it may be due to an economic issue, since the royalties for a limited use of the printed copy are lower than the royalties for an unlimited use of the online version. The rest of The Guardian’s physical archive has been stored in a controlled environment camera, where it will be cared for and preserved for a digital future.

The following section of the article begins by glossing over the importance of the archive, and how the destination of photographic images and their availability for consultation, purchase or publication is linked to the development of the digital archive.

Starting from two example images that represent women manipulating photographic copies in the context of an archive, there are noticeable differences in its treatment in different periods (1952 and circa 1990). The first image is in black and white and is accurately dated, representing a woman clearly working in a photographic archive, reading the information noted on the back of the copy. Piles of photographs are shown everywhere – on both sides of the woman and behind her – and between them appears the diseembodied woman’s head. The second image is in colour and not dated, and shows a more aseptic and timeless environment, in which a woman carefully manipulates (white gloves) black and white photographs. If in the first photograph the human figure appears integrated in the archive, in this second the blurring of the background separates the subject from the environment. The physical proximity to the photographs, according to Charles H.Gibbs-Smith – who devised the Hulton Picture Post Library- classification system in 1947 – is an essential quality of the archive staff. The 1953 image seems to confirm this principle, where the woman appears immersed in the archive and the photograph itself provides her with the necessary information. However, the woman in the most recent photo seems to inquire about a particular photo and contrast the image with the information noted on a list.

The second image also emphasizes the importance of written information in the search for the new digital archive. Despite significant advances in search algorithms based on image recognition, Google Search is optimized to work well with content that is reasonably well described on the web. With regard to cataloguing systems, Doireann Wallace argues that the keywords assigned to a digital image are not so much intended to indicate the location of the image as the need to replace it. The words pretend to be synonyms of the image, to create a TEXTUAL image that corresponds to the described image. The words that describe both images in the Getty database are compared, identifying in the second image a much larger and more detailed list of terms than those used to describe the old photograph.

The terms describing the 1953 image are more specific and relevant to the motifs (scrutiny, examination, photography, photographic archive, etc…) while the terms describing the more contemporary image seem valid for a wider variety of contexts. It is surprising to note that only 6 terms coincide between the two lists, perhaps due to the production logic of each of these images, while the intention of the first image is to advertise or document the practices of the agency Keystone Press, the second is conceived with a more conceptual intention (stock image).

Another interesting distinction between the two images is the type of license: that of the 1950s is of the “right-managed” type, a type of license limited to a specific use and for a limited period of time, while the second corresponds to the “royalty-free” type, whose value depends on the size of the image and is granted in perpetuity and to be used in the manner considered by the buyer.

The type of license is often linked to the type of collection to which the image is assigned by the visual content provider and is considered an abstract entity: it designates a label associated with a certain number of images and whose intention is to communicate something about their character, origin and usability.

Finally, there is a fundamental difference between the two collections from which these photographs come: the second comes from the Vetta Collection which exists exclusively in a virtual form, while the Hulton Archive from which the photos of the 50s come exists both virtually and physically, in a large warehouse in London where more than 60 million physical photographs are deposited (along with those from the Keystone Press Agency).

The essay concludes with a reflection on the residual archives, defining them as those formed in the past, but still active in the current cultural process, occupying a flexible territory in which past and present overlap, and where the ancient “state of art” is interconnected with avant-garde technology. As it happened to the archives discarded by the Tate and the V&A formed in the past but which still exert cultural influence in the present (as shown by the interest shown by the press).

The structure of the digital file is similar to the analog file, which is perceived for example in the terminology used to denote elements of the interface with which researchers interact with the file and which is inherited from traditional systems (lightbox, contact sheet, etc…). Jacques Derrida says “The technical structure of the archive also determines the structure of archival content.” In the process of image digitization, the technical structure of the analog archive has become a form of archival content worthy of preservation. This is precisely what underlines the title of The Guardian’s exhibition, which elevates both the content and the structure to the status of Art. Highlighting the archive annotations of the photographs, we point out that lost materiality of the analogical archive lost in the digital migration (together with the professionals that with the technological transformation of the archive becomes residual). The second photograph in the example represents the paradox identified by Manovich where the digital supplants the analogical, and in the process glorifies and immortalizes it.