My favorite way to look at photographs is by leafing through homemade albums. The captions are fanciful, the order is significant, the material is diverse. Good albums communicate a private urgency, and occasionally you even hit on something sinister, as when an ex-wife is conspicuously missing or a blacklisted face has been cropped out. For decades, a growing network of scrappers in America has refined and updated English commonplace books and turned scrapbooking into folk art.
My second favorite way of looking at photos is in online slide shows. Slide shows began appearing on news sites like Slate.com a few years ago, before most sites could handle video. Many early slide shows featured runway fashion; you could see dozens of outfits instead of the select handful that might make it into the paper. Now all kinds of subjects get slide-show treatment, with substantial captions. Recently, on the Times site, lucid daylight portraits of people attending the Obama inauguration chronicled the event even better than live footage did. Seen in sequence, each face seemed to reflect a discrete facet of the day’s ecstasy, catharsis and anxiety.
My least favorite way to see photos is the way I keep mine: jumbled in a box. So I’m mystified by Google’s recent decision to essentially dump its priceless trove of photos from Life magazine — some 10 million images from Life’s holdings, most of them never published — into an online crate. Google has laboriously digitized these images, which include prephotographic pictures from as early as 1750, from negatives, etchings, slides, prints and glass plates. But Google seems to have taken an approach opposite to the home scrapbooker: having worked aggressively to acquire, convert and promote the Life photos, Google has punted on display.
Go to the Google image-search page and you’ll see a link for the searchable Life material, which has been online about four months. Images of Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and an Apollo 11 astronaut advertise the holdings. Sounds like a happy place to pass an hour or two. But the home page for the archive has little charm, and the categories assigned to what are presumably the most exciting photographic subjects (“people,” “places,” 1860-1970 by decade) don’t exactly tantalize. Then, within these categories, you find some head-scratchers. Interested in “culture”? Here are photos of “railroad.” Drawn to “events”? You might like these shots of “World’s Fair,” “Academy Awards” or “Vietnam War.”
Captions, where they exist, vary widely in tone. Civil War photos come with newspaper-quality captions. A haunting Aug. 17, 1864, photo by A. J. Riddle is said to show “Inmates digging mass grave for their dead at Andersonville Prison during Civil War.” By contrast, a 1951 photo of a couple sitting under a tree is explained only as “Football Game, Football Players.” Almost all of the captions, like “young upcoming starlet Marilyn Monroe,” seem to be taken straight from the period, suggesting that Google saw no need to update or enrich them.
Most dispiriting of all is that Google doesn’t let viewers page through, photo by photo. The meditative slide-show rhythm — click, click, study, click, gaze, click, stare — is impossible to establish here. After looking at a photo you have to return to a page of thumbnails or a row of haphazardly related images and then select another to blow up. Though you’re permitted to search by size, content and color, the groupings of thumbnails still often lack rhyme and reason. When I went to admire the heavily promoted trove of photos of Jacqueline Kennedy, as she is anachronistically called in the “people” section of the home page, I found a useless miscellany. There was an image of a 1961 painting by Kennedy; then a Time magazine cover from the 1990s showing a 1960s image of Kennedy and family; then some black-and-whites from 1960; and finally a 1991 shot of Kennedy, by then Jacqueline Onassis, sitting with her children and Ted Kennedy on an unnamed occasion.
I get that many of these are unpublished Kennedy pictures. But someone ought to have listed which photos were from what shoot and maybe even indicated which of that day’s photos, if any, Life actually published. Maybe witnesses could have given quotes for captions (“It was a hot day, and Mrs. Kennedy. . . .”). As it is, younger users might conclude that Life just didn’t cover the Kennedys all that intently.
This wasn’t my only frustration. Looking for images of Bali, I found the first two photos that Google returned were a Time cover showing sticks of dynamite (“Al Qaeda: Alive and Ticking”) and a shot of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman dancing in the Bali Room at the Beverly Hilton. Helpful. When I sought photos of Saul Bellow, I found several identical thumbnails of the same three author portraits from the 1970s. I did better with broader searches. I put in “Depression” and found Arthur Rothstein photos of shacks from the 1930s that I had never seen.
When Google first announced on its blog that the Life archive was up, it seemed like another Google good deed: rescuing the name of Life magazine and the glorious 20th-century tradition of still photojournalism. But Google has failed to recognize that it can’t publish content under its imprint without also creating content of some kind: smart, reported captions; new and good-looking slide-show software; interstitial material that connects disparate photos; robust thematic and topical organization. All this stuff is content, and it requires writers, reporters, designers and curators. Instead, the company’s curatorial imperative, as usual, is merely “make it available.”
That’s the Google way. I can’t imagine that it sells many photographs. (Framed prints of images in the archive are available, “starting at $79.99.”) By contrast, when Apple decided to make an enormous archive of music available for sampling and purchase, they went for broke adding patented Apple content. The result was the pyrotechnical funworld of iTunes.If Google intends to get into the business of displaying photography, it needs to either encourage wiki curation or, more feasibly, to hire a team of people who understand photography to make the most of the raw material here. It’s a good time for it: many first-rate content providers who made their careers in old media (some who even understand the significance of Life photography) would be happy, one of these days, to get a call from Google.