Friday, September 25, 2009

Seriously: No Pictures Beyond This Point.

THE BARNES FOUNDATION gallery is among the most amazing collections of art I've ever seen. You can get within sneezing distance of the 181 Renoir's, 69 Cezanne's, 59 Matisse's and handful of Van Gogh's.

But you can't take pictures anywhere inside.

Technically, you aren't even allowed to have a camera in your possession inside the private facility. There are security cameras in every corner of every room, and there are security guards throughout the facility.

But the foundation is otherwise progressive when it comes to images of their art work. They have digitized every single piece in the collection, including the three-dimensional pieces. Images are made available to educational and commercial outlets upon request, a spokesperson told me. There can be fees for commercial use of the images, with fees varying based upon intent of the product. Images for educational use are generally free, though that can vary as well.

The spokesperson said that camera restrictions are in place for two reasons. First, the flash can damage the art. Second, this allows the foundation to control the use of images of the gallery. When the collection moves to the Ben Franklin Parkway in 2011, the photo policy may be reassessed, the spokesman said.

Until then, the closest thing you'll get to a family snapshot will be outside the current facility.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Danger of Historical Ignorance.

A GERMAN JOURNALIST serving in a fellowship with the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about the health care debates and the use of Hitler-like imagery in reference to President Obama. The journalist wrote:

"Equating Obama to Hitler and the Democratic health-care plans to Nazi policies shows no understanding of the inconceivable cruelty of Third Reich Germany. The people who invoke the Nazis don't seem to know what they're invoking - or, worse, don't care. This is a reckless insult to the millions of victims of the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes - especially given that, 70 years after the outbreak of World War II, we are rapidly losing those who lived through the horror."

This seems to exemplify the distance between history and people. Those offering Nazi imagery either believe that Obama is also pure evil, or they are ignorant of history.

(On my journalism blog, I questioned whether it was irresponsible of journalists to perpetuate the ignorance).

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Hey look kids! There's Big Ben, and there's Parliament."

LIKE ANY GOOD PHILADELPHIAN, when visitors arrive in town, I take them to see the Liberty Bell. As far as Philadelphia icons go, the bell is right up there with Geno's and the Rocky steps (otherwise known as the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Beyond those sites, I'm hard-pressed to think of places to show out-of-towners, especially when they only have a few hours here.

Today, I slowed down a bit and watched people's reactions to the bell and surrounding exhibits. Most people walked right past the displays in the foyer leading to the bell. The 4-foot wide black and white photographs and other historical reproductions were largely ignored by the packs of children. A few French-speaking tourists watched a video about freedom and the bell (the park ranger generously offered to show the Japanese-language version of the film but my Japanese friends declined). I noticed that there was nothing interactive in the facility.

The bell itself was at the center of a 360-degree photo op. There were people everywhere - not facing the bell - having their picture taken. The last time I visited the bell (when other visitors were here), there was a park ranger throwing out bell facts and stories. Maybe he was off today.

I'm not sure there was an appreciation for the symbolism of the bell by many of those in attendance. They sure did seem happy though - I bet they tell all of their friends they saw the bell.

At the Art Museum, the guard at the gate welcomed us and told us that photography is fine as long as we don't use the flash. Inside, few people took pictures. I noticed that there were numerous fragile pieces that could be negatively affected by a sudden burst of light (like the skirt on the Degas' statue, left). Guards in every hall kept a close eye on the visitors - a luxury not every semi-public institution could afford.

The guards didn't stop me from getting very close to the paintings, which is something I love to do. I appreciate art on several levels - the superficial, the process itself, and as a piece of history. Paintings, like fiction, are not always realistic but they can represent the mindset of an era (just as fiction can). I love seeing the evolution of styles. Getting inches away from this Pissarro landscape (right) shows me how he used texture in his work.

Like many of the museum visitors, we spent the bulk of our time with the impressionists. My guests didn't get very excited about anything else in the building.

All in all, my day of touring made me wonder whether marketing history and museums to out-of-towners is a worthwhile effort. There seemed to be a sense of obligation - I'm in Philly, I need to see the bell, etc. Instead of actually experiencing the city, people see the stuff they're supposed to see. I'm not sure what the alternative would be - how do you provide random visitors authentic Philly experiences?

I drew the line at Geno's. I feared they might not serve my foreign friends.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Authenticity of The Alternative Self (Or, How Flogging Fantasies and HistoryMobiles Make People Happy).

WHERE TO BEGIN? How about this: I'm thinking Renaissance Festivals might be fun.

According to scholars Hyounggon Kim and Tazim Jamal, the Texas Ren Fest is a hotbed of binge-drinking, promiscuity, role-playing, nude partying and posing for cameras (not all at once, please). Regular attendees say that the costumed-environment is a carefree world where everyone is an equal (as long as you are costumed) and judging is left at the gate. The regulars say that at the Ren Fest, they can finally be their authentic selves.

My questions is this: why not be your carefree self every day? Why let people control your desires? If it's legal, go for it. Want to wear a cape to the office? Do it. Want to wear a mask and leather boots? I won't stop you. Express yourself, my friend. The world would be a much more interesting place if everyone did.

But I digress. We're talking about authenticity. I question whether you can be your authentic self (existential or otherwise) simply by donning a costume a few weekends per year. The rationale seems to be that the people are not authentic in their workaday life. At least during the festivals, you can choose your persona. To me, it sounds like you are leaving one social construct for another. But hey, have fun!

My reading of Michael Frisch's "A Shared Authority" was difficult. The dang Google book program lopped off half the chapter. I glean, however, that Frisch was among the crew in charge of educating the masses in 1982 for Philadelphia's "Tercentenary" celebration.

The challenge was to provide information that people would appreciate and learn from. The solution? A HistoryMobile. Yes. Everything with "mobile" on the end is going to be fun.

The ultimate lesson learned, I think, was that people wanted to interact with history. The HistoryMobile brought information to people, creating a street-festival type atmosphere. People learned on their own, without the weight of a museum over them. Did they sacrifice the message through the presentation? You need to find that balance, I suppose.

In the end, who decides what is authentic anyway?

(The images are from Offagna, Italy, during their annual medieval festival).

Life, One Frame At A Time.

MY MEMORY OPERATES in still frames. I remember the past in a single image, or sometimes as a series of still pictures. No one is ever moving. My memory is stagnant.

I shoot a lot of pictures and they are what I remember from the places I've been, the things I've done. I can remember the context of each and every picture I've ever taken (and I was a professional photographer for a long time).

Looking at those pictures - either the old prints or the digi files - evokes emotions, ideas and, often, a sense of place. Just seeing the images, I recall smells, stories, sounds, expressions. I can remember the exact details - time, names, weather, etc.

I remember feeding Poki and Riri, the two little dogs in the image above, sushi using my chopsticks during the farewell dinner with my family in Japan. I remember drinking sake, my face turning red with every cup. I remember my uncle's eyes welling with tears because his oldest daughter, my cousin, had passed away recently. She would have loved the party.

My problem is that without images, I have a hard time bringing the past to life. I can't imagine the moments, experience the events, or even recall the reason why things occurred. If I didn't take pictures, I can't imagine the event and it fades into nothingness.

I fear that without images, I'll forget everything. Those pictures are my direct link to the past. That's why I always have a camera with me - I'm an unbelievably sentimental person.

I'm interested in why other people care about the past (as well as how they remember it), so I enjoyed the beginning of Rosenzweig and Thelen's The Presence of the Past. But I quickly became frustrated with the book - the different reasons people appreciate their past are just so disparate, and their tales, I feel, verge on psychology rather than history. Their thoughts are often self-centered - legacies of family violence, finding God, drug abuse, lamenting lost innocence, determining what made them the people they are today, etc.

The personal past shapes the individual, more than formal history lessons do. I get that. I understand that people want to know their family background - as much for themselves as to pass that history along to future family members. But I'm curious why we remember what we remember. Why do certain things shape our identity more than others? Is that even a question for historians?

Perhaps I was miffed from the get-go, when on page 57, the authors referred to people of mixed racial backgrounds as "half breeds." Nice. Is it 1950 again? Maybe they want to hold on to 1941, as they wrote on page 123, "One of the most important contributions of professional historians has been to foster the idea of nationalism, and the rise of nationalism has in turn fostered the practice of professional history." Seriously? They're boasting about increasing nationalism? Or were they being wry?

Nationalism is way outdated, especially in a country with 300 million people. When Kanye West is the greatest common denominator among people, the message is clear - we have very little in common with each other. What can be considered "collective history," let alone common knowledge, barely exists.

Rather than harping on the past, I try to live in the present. That's the other reason I take so many pictures. Shooting pictures means appreciating the moment, seeing the beauty in the instant.

That's why I love my dog so much. Mookie (left) runs, sniffs, jumps, barks, spins, dances and fetches with abandon, unencumbered by the events of yesterday. He has habits and he learns stuff, but he's generally uninhibited by the past. His world is right now, a very Zen existence.

I imagine the next step in the concept of public history is figuring out how to make history relevant to a wider audience, and establish commonalities as to what makes for important history.

It's ironic that you have to be visionary in order to make people appreciate history beyond their own past.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

There's Only One Version of History: Mine.

I CAME CLOSE TO NOT existing. Very close.

During World War II, my grandfather served in the Army, fighting in the Philippines. It was hot and swampy, he tells me. He contracted malaria for which he still receives disability checks. But that's not the only point when the family tree was nearly cut before I came along.

My other grandfather - my mother's father - served in the Japanese military (he shot the image above). And he was in the Philippines, roughly about the same time as my American grandfather. My Japanese grandfather was shot in the eye during a battle there, and he nearly died, I'm told.

Sometimes I wonder if my grandfathers were shooting at each other.

And sometimes I wonder where the real history lies. By American standards, Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack, unprompted in a military sense. Sure, there had been trade injunctions and verbal sparring, but crush the Pacific fleet? That was uncalled for.

What about the Japanese perspective? Is that history?

What I gather from Ian Tyrrell's Historians in Public is that some traditional scientific historians are uncomfortable with the democratization of knowledge. They'd prefer that there was a universal idea of what is considered history, and multiculturalism and political correctness be damned. History is what they say it is - with they being Ivory Tower intellectuals (i.e. white American dudes).

I find that shocking.

The discomfort that historians apparently have dealt with since the origin of "History" is more understandable. As Carl Becker says, the facts are malleable. They are subjective and constantly changing as needed. How can an historian, even one of ph.D caliber, claim to know anything for certain when the facts are so easily massaged to suit one's needs?

As education evolved, and social sciences garnered credibility, and political power ignored historians, and mass media rendered them relatively obsolete beyond academia, traditional scientific historians seemed to grasp for appreciation, influence, importance, and indeed, relevance. They complained about the narrowness and fragmentation of the field (while at the same time perpetuating it). They called for specializations to act as bricks that build a collective home.

That's progressive?

There is a purpose to history, I think. It's more than nostalgia or romance. We can study the past, looking for best practices and warning signs. It is the infrastructure of the present, and an outline for the future. While the historical facts themselves may be debatable, so are the moral outcomes. And that's a wonderful thing.

I think this really comes down to how we define history. If everyman is an historian in some fashion, then there are millions, if not billions of histories. There are commonalities, for certain, but there are also different perspectives. That doesn't have to hinder history. It can actually enhance it by making history inclusive, maybe even personal (that's my Japanese grandfather on the far right).

In the end, history belongs to the individual. Nobody knows my history better than I do.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Pictures Steal Your Soul, Turn You to Bronze.


A semi-public institution that houses rare and delicate material has a problem with people taking pictures inside the building. Their collection, it seems, is light sensitive. Flash could hasten the erosion of their stuff. So they completely ban photography in their space.

But we live in the age of cell phone cameras, TwitPic, Flickr and Facebook. Images are part of our every day life, and we (as a society) snap them constantly.

So, should the institution allow people to take pictures - without flash? Or do you prohibit anyone from taking any images, assuming that many people don't know how to turn their flash off?

My immediate thought is this: you can't control people. Really. You can tell them not to shoot images, and they still will. It's like telling them they can't drive faster than 55 mph. Or don't walk on the grass. Or don't take pictures of the Sistine Chapel.

People will continue to take pictures. So, what can you control?

What about being proactive, creating easily accessible images (with water-stamps) that people can view online or purchase in the gift shop (perhaps in book form)? They could be revenue generators for the institution. People would be able to grab the images online and use them wherever they want but so what? The institution's mission is to serve the public, right?

If people can see the place online, some might ask, "Why would they want to visit?" I'd answer, I've seen the Eiffel Tower a million times on magazine covers and in my friends' vacation snaps. And I still want to go there. In fact, the pics make me want to go even more.

The institution could continue the "no photography" policy (knowing full well that they don't have the staffing to police the place). People will still snap images, for sure, but they may not if they know the online database is there and free.

Ah, free. That could be a catch. This interests me as it relates to the dawn of journalism on the Internet. Back in the early 1990's, people put their content online for free. Now, they can't get anyone to pay for it. This hypothetical institution needs revenue, and images and video could be a potential source.

The reality is that there will always be free images online. So why not be the original source, and brand them in such a way that the images further market the institution?

When it comes to professional photographers or video crews, well, I'm thinking they are a case-by-case kind of thing.

These are simply my preliminary thoughts, without support or data about how other institutions handle photography. But I think the giant loophole will always be the Internet, and the free flow of information that exists there. You can't stop it. So you might as well adopt it and use it to your advantage.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Hello, Wagner. Hello, George.

I HAVE RETURNED TO STUDENT STATUS after a seven year hiatus. I've enrolled in the continuing education department at Temple University, largely because it's pretty much free (I work at Temple) but also because I'm thinking of pursuing doctoral studies in the near future.

History in general - and public history specifically - appeals to me because I am a journalist. As first-drafters of history, I believe that journalists have a responsibility to get facts straight, not water down the content, and provide the context around the primary event. In our attention deficit, 140-character microblog-loving world, context, I fear, is greatly missing.

I'm interested in bridging traditional academic research and the non-academic world, creating readable scholarship - without the stigma of being overtly commercial.

I'm not sure there is such a thing. But I enjoy researching and writing.

My intellectual bio: suburban kid educated in Delaware public schools; graduated with communications degree from Loyola College in Maryland; hold masters degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Pennsylvania (master of liberal arts). I have been at various times a photojournalist, features writer, crime reporter, magazine writer and videographer. Sometimes multiple things at once.

Now, I teach journalism at Temple and freelance words and images on the side.

I'm very interested in the class project working with the Wagner Free Institute of Science (above and left), if only because it is a great story. A Victorian-era organization that became the first branch of the free library, containing skeletons, bugs, birds, fossils and other fun stuff? In the heart of North Philly? And it's relatively unknown?

Yeah, I'm interested.