Fellow’s Report: Exploring the Near and Far Sides of the Collection

2019 marks fifty years since the Apollo 11 spaceflight landed the first men on the moon. The next History of Photography rotation, which opens this coming Spring, will celebrate this anniversary by taking the moon as its subject. As part of my fellowship, I am co-curating the installation with three graduate students in the Photographic Preservation and Collections Management Program and Lisa Hostetler, our curator in charge of the Department of Photography.

In putting together the rotation, our goal is use to the collection to demonstrate different ways people have thought about the moon, both as an astronomical object and a cultural object. In my experience so far, however, the moon has also taught me a lot about the Eastman Museum’s collections. Like the moon, these collections can be seen as having a near side and a far side. The near side is one we can see every day and one for which we’ll have to take a trip. In this post, I’ll take you on my trip and share what I discovered along the way.

The Near Side

First, the near side: our digitized collections. This side of our collections is always accessible and always in motion. In 2016, we made more than 250,000 of our collection objects available online, and since then our database has grown to over 315,000 entries.* Searchable and sortable by artist, year, medium, and other terms, this database is a great starting point for seeing what’s in the collection.

Step 1: Search for “moon.” Seems like a good place to start.

A search for “moon” returns 308 entries: 257 from the Photography Collection, 47 from Moving Image, and 3 from the Eastman Legacy Collection. That means out of ~315,000 objects, 0.1% have “moon” in their title, description, or terms.

Here’s just a sample of what our results look like: scattered images and a lot of gray squares. By clicking “Filter” and checking the box for “Image Available,” we can get a better view.

Step 2: Filter for images.

Now let’s see what we’re looking at. Of the 308 objects, 142 have images, and they’re all in the Photography Collection. Within these results, we can spot some groups of objects. 67 of the 142 items, so almost half, are transparencies. Specifically, most of them are glass-mounted lantern slides. The Victoria & Albert Museum has a great video about lantern slides if you’re unfamiliar with them, but in short, these pre-cinema images were designed to be projected, both as entertainment and education.

For a variety of technical and conservation reasons (ask me in the comments!), lantern slides are difficult to exhibit, especially since many of them were moved and animated during projection. That means we can maybe include one in the show — which shouldn’t stop you from browsing their digitized images, of course.

Now we’re down to 74 items, about one-third (27) of which are stereographs of the moon. From crescent to full, these images attest to the popular appeal of the lunar theme in the mid-to-late 19th century. At a moment when the idea of traveling to the moon — let alone landing on it !— was unimaginable, these three-dimensional images were a way to get up close and personal with our local satellite. Taken together, these stereographs could be an exhibition in themselves!

The remaining group of 47 photographs contains some definite possibilities. I don’t think we can get away with a moon-related exhibition without including Ansel Adams, so his Moon, Television Aerial, Haliahala, Hawaiica (1953) is a good sign. But we have 431 Adams-related collection objects — there have got to be a lot more moons in there.

And that’s where we’ll pause. Because although there are some photographs worth considering in this group of 142 objects, we’ve greatly limited our scope from the outset. In lunar terms, if the full moon represents “moon” photographs, only a first quarter’s worth has an image available online.

(Illustrations courtesy of Fathom.)

Due both to the labor involved in digitizing and some copyright restrictions, it’s unavoidable that some objects do not have images. While it’s tempting to operate within a “pics or it didn’t happen” mentality — and I’m certainly guilty — this filter leaves out a lot of photographs in the collection that could make it into the exhibition. In fact, given that these photos aren’t available online, that’s all the more reason to show them in the museum!

Filtering for images isn’t the only way this search is limited, because there are bound to be photographs in which the moon is visible but not necessarily the subject of the image. Then there are all the other places we could look: to related concepts — outer space, astronauts, telescopes, and many more — or to recognizable people, whether astronomers or artists, like Adams or Edward Steichen, who are known for their photos taken at night. One of a curator’s jobs is to conduct a thorough exploration of an exhibition’s subject or theme, which in our case is how the moon and photography interrelate. In short, a search for “moon” isn’t going to bring up every object we might consider — not by a moonshot.

Step 3: Search for other terms.

Here are just a few objects the team found using other related keywords:

From left: “lunar,” “astronaut,” and “night.”
From left: “space,” “crater,” and “astronomy.”

These are, as I said, only a few of many possibilities. As you can see, some of them don’t have images, which means it’s time to take a trip to…

The Far Side

The far side of our collections is our photographic collection. While this might make it sound scary or inaccessible, the point is more that the physical collection is teeming with content we don’t typically get to see. More than that, the collection is also managed by wonderful, helpful staff. In my next post, I’ll talk about more about it and share some of the discoveries the team made once we had a chance to see these and other objects in person.

For now, what other search terms can you come up with related to the moon? When you think of a photograph of the moon, what’s the first one you think of?

*All of these numbers are as of December 5, 2018.

Tracy Stuber is the 2018–2019 Kress Interpretive Fellow at the George Eastman Museum. She is presently a Ph.D Candidate in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester, where she is writing a dissertation about the changing status of American photography as a mass medium in the 1970s.