Cultural Erasure

Above is a brief example of a timeline I created in class using TimelineJS. I decided to focus on the life of Kandinsky, as I am researching his career as part of the Bauhaus seminar. I thought it would help to organize my thoughts, and to put into visual form the significant moments of his life. I have not had time to finish the timeline, but the above example will at least give you an idea. I find that one of the best uses of a timeline is organization, as well as it affords you the ability to see how different events may overlap each other. Timelines are useful tools for the art historian, and the historian. I had used TimelineJS once before, as we had to create a timeline of German history as a group project in our Bauhaus seminar. The only factor I had difficulty with using TimelineJS was when I tried to add images. There is a specific way you need to copy your image (which I didn’t know the first time I used TimelineJS, but Professor Bauer covered it in class) and if you don’t do it properly, your image won’t appear. This is definitely not what you want to happen during a presentation!

I went to the Digital Conference today at North Carolina Central University, and was able to see Dr. Lyneise Williams’s presentation. She is working on a project examining the images of African-Americans in print, and has run into an issue with archival material. The problem is that when newspapers are transferred to microfilm, the image is distorted and flattened by the process, and many of the gradations from the original image are lost. As a result, the images of African-Americans are obscured by becoming darker than they actually are. If microfilm is then digitized, it is now two steps removed from the original, and the distortions become greater. Dr. Williams explained that the people tasked with digitizing magazines and newspapers are primarily concerned with the text being clear and legible, and that image quality is not considered. She states that the most frequent response she hears when she points out the issue at the various archives she visits is, “We never thought about it.”

This problem has several components. First, Dr. Williams notes that the individuals tasked with digitizing the material are not archivists. They do not consider the image quality when digitizing magazines or newspaper articles. Second, archives are moving completely to digital collections in order to save space, so it will no longer be possible to find the original, primary documents. In this case, Dr. Williams traveled to Paris to find old copies of magazines in shops. Third, the distortion of African-Americans images in history is a form of cultural erasure. Their features can be darkened to the extent that they become a mere shadow, in which they can no longer be recognized. There is something deeply disconcerting about this. Not only is this something that hasn’t been considered, in many cases it is too late to do anything about it as the original photos no longer exist. The idea that people of color are having their features inadvertently darkened to the point that there is a marked difference, and that the move to digitize all archival documents is going to compound the issue is awful.

I also learned that Kodak photographic paper was created and color-keyed for a white person’s skin tone. While this is not surprising, I was unaware that this was the case. This meant that all people of color appeared much darker in the photographs than they actually were. It’s a form of racial bias in the development of photography which I suspect many are unaware of.

The question remains, what do we do? Archives are running out of room, and soon most if not all of them will only work with digitized materials. But the very nature of the digitization process is inherently problematic for representations of people of color. The materials we use, the techniques we use to digitize newspapers can obscure the features of a person. How do we preserve the original images? And what do we do when the original images no longer exist?

As art historians we are taught to examine primary sources. We examine the objects we research. What if these objects no longer existed? What if a new technology came along which seemingly made these objects more accessible, but obscured and altered the image to a significant degree? What if this is all we had left? This is the issue that Dr. Williams is facing in her research. For art historians, the visual image is the very center of our work. But it is possible, and even likely, depending on the area of our research, that the very images we see are not accurate representations, and may even be misleading.

Perhaps the answer is for the field of digital art history to expand. If there were people trained to consider both the text and the image, then perhaps we could stop any further degradation of the image from occurring. But what about the history of people of color in the United States? Most of the original photographs and/or negatives have been lost or destroyed. We are left with the distortions created by microfilm, or the double distortions of microfilm which has been digitized. I was saddened, but not surprised to discover that we have ignorantly been culturally erasing people of color from history. As art historians exploring digital technology, it is crucial for us to remember that even seemingly small choices matter. The very materials we use to make information more accessible can have flaws which render the images inaccurate.

1 comment

  1. Annie, I’m glad you’re using the timeline as a way to organize your thoughts for the Bauhaus paper. I also think timelines are a great way to get your bearings when you’re diving into a new topic! I may try to get a basic one done for my Bauhaus paper as well as a way to make sure I’m focusing on the biggest events in an order that makes sense. These exercises show that digital tools are effect not only as finished products for art historical research, but also as something that can help scholars along the way. I was also happy to see that you were able to go to the conference! I sadly couldn’t make it so I was thrilled to see your write up. Professor Williams’s research is fascinating especially in relation to our course. Like you, I also hadn’t thought about how digitization would affect communities of color through distortions of image quality. I wonder if this will continue to be a problem moving forward as so many images are now digital and Newspapers immediately distribute digitally now. Obviously that does not make up for the fact that entire histories are no longer accessible, but it is hopeful that technologies have changed so that previous issues will ideally become null. One last interesting thing to note, is that Professor Williams was able to travel to Paris to try to find originals. I think that says a lot about the types of institutions you need to be associated with in order to secure the funds to do your research. Not just anyone could go through that effort to secure originals which points to the real need in digitizing thoroughly so that images and the knowledge they represent can be accessed by a variety of people.

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