Sensibility and Stuff: Collecting Photographs in a Purgatory of Zeros and Ones


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In front of the Savoy Theatre, Market Street, west of 12th Street, photograph by Wenzel J. Hess, December 7, 1935.

PhillyHistory.org allows registered visitors to tag and “collect” photographs and maps. In this essay, I consider the somewhat surreal notion of browsing online images and building a collection of “favorites.”

Meandering alone in the stacks of an old library or in the aisles of an archive is a daunting experience. Few other places on earth offer anything like this kind of weighty solitude. Repositories seem silent, but they hold voices. Like cemeteries, they’re about the past, but they’re not somber. Repositories offer opportunities to simulate in our imaginations unknown places and unimagined horizons. They’re hermetic, comfortable and exude confidence; after all, repositories have all the right answers. We just need to approach them with the right questions. But we’re in no great hurry to ask any questions, not yet, anyway. We’re still meandering, browsing, and searching for treasure we know exists.

This isn’t treasure we can get our hands on, and we’re not actually in the stacks. We’re in front of a computer monitor and the treasure we’re looking for is visual. We’re searching, week after week, month after month, examining thousands of images at PhillyHistory.org.

What are we looking for, exactly? We’re not looking for a picture of any particular place or time. What we want are pictures that speak with clarity and strength. They’ll be Philadelphia scenes, though not necessarily ones that were ever built. They’re likely to be black and white, but could have unexpected color. We’re bound to discover impressive photographers we’ve never heard of before, like the elusive Quinn or Wenzel J. Hess (above and here). We’re looking for a discovery that’s a shade off what we already know, something that’s satisfyingly different. And we’re doing this by immersing ourselves in the stuff of images as it comes to us in streams of pixels.

Is there really that much of a difference perusing historic images in servers versus stacks? Is there any real difference filing copies of images in manila folders versus tagging them as “favorites”? Can we actually possess an image that you can’t even touch? Could searching online be getting us closer to the past, or is it only a sly trick diverting us away from reality?

We grew up experiencing photographs as objects. We take their heft, texture and patina for granted. Before the online option, we had to deal with photographs and images in their conflated form. Now, photographs must be images but images do not necessarily need to be photographs. Separated from their “hosts,” images are no longer objects; they’ve forfeited their “thing-ness” to reside in a purgatory of zeros and ones, a place photographs never knew. Images travel the speed of light on chips, circuits and cables and even over the air. We can’t hold them, but we can want them, know and treasure them. Looking at these photographs is not about stuff; it’s about sensibility.

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