Organizing the Light Work Collection

In 1985 we put together an exhibition from our collection titled Light Work: Photography Over the 70s and 80s. The exhibition opened at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse and then traveled to several locations throughout the state for the next two years. Most of the work in the exhibition was donated to us by artists who had participated in our Artist-in-Residence program (AIR).

We started the AIR program in 1976, and it continues today as our most important contribution to the field. We currently invite 12-15 artists per year to participate in the program with the goal of giving artists the opportunity to do what they do best—make new work. Each artist comes to Syracuse for a month and is provided housing, a private darkroom or computer workspace, 24 hour access to our lab and a $4,000 artist fee. Their only obligation is to work on the project of their choice without any distractions or additional requirements. At the end of their residency each artist is asked to donate a few examples of their work to our collection, and we publish a selection of their work in a special annual edition of our journal Contact Sheet. (Image: Gary Metz, from the series Quaking Aspen, Populous Tremuloides.)

When we did the retrospective exhibition in 1985 we realized that we had a unique collection that would continue to grow along with our AIR program. So in 1992 when we began to catalogue and digitize the collection. Our goal was to make the collection accessible and searchable from a number of different perspectives. In 1992 the database technology, and especially the image data base technology, was nothing like it is today. There was no Internet, and the founders of Google were in grade school. We were able to digitize the work in the collection using Kodak’s Photo CD service where you sent Kodak 100 slides and they sent you back a CD filled with digital files. Kodak also had an image database program called Shoebox, and we used that as our first database.

We created a number of fields in the database to help us organize the work with obvious functions like artist’s name, dates, titles, catalogue numbers, and where the print was located in the collection. Because it was a collection of images, we also wanted to try and develop a way to search the collection in order to find works that might relate to one another. One way to do that was to use a keyword field that might include general descriptions of the image like, portrait, landscape, abstract, etc. We thought that this system was too limited for a number of reasons, including the general nature of the descriptions, and the objectivity of whoever had the task of assigning keywords to each image.

In the original Shoebox database there was a long text field where we could add essays about the artists, artists statements, or just about any kind of description about the artist or the image. We had already been writing essays about each artist for publication in Contact Sheet, so we could easily add these essays to each record in the database and make the entire essay searchable. While this wasn’t a perfect solution it seemed like a good way to search the collection that might turn up unexpected and also useful results. Now that the entire collection in online in a searchable database we want to encourage our audience to use this flexible search capability to make their own connections with the collection. (Image: Hank Willis Thomas, Branded Chest.)

As I am writing this I am looking out over a very snowy January Syracuse landscape, so I decided to type “winter” into the search box in the collection. The search produced 42 matches including work by Peter Finnemore, Hank Willis Thomas, and Gary Metz. I’ve just included the images here along with the caption information and would be very interested to have your comments about the results.

—Jeffrey Hoone, Executive Director

Image: Peter Finnemore, Mad about the Cow.

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