I’m a bit of a reluctant user of “facebook”, mostly because of their user-hostile and byzantine privacy policies. However, increasingly people are using its easy interface to create really useful web pages, many of which you don’t need to be a member of facebook or logged in to enjoy. There are some quite specific archaeology ones relevant to the Northwest Coast which I will review some other time. Today, I want to focus on a remarkable compendium of historic photos of North American indigenous people. There are almost 200 separate galleries, many with more than fifty pictures in them (do the math), under the auspices of the group administrator Jonathan Holmes, who takes an active role in the discussions and comments. This is an enormous investment of time and effort, especially as many of the pictures have notes (hover your mouse over the picture) and in a remarkable number the identity of the subject is named and contextualized. This is not a mere link dump for pictures – the over 20,000 comments reflect many positive reviews from Tribal and First Nations members (e.g., Tahltan) and members of the general public, (as well as some cranky comments from six year olds and racists).
So, applying my principle of surfing the web so you don’t have to, the following are the galleries of most regional interest to this blog (using the author’s orthographies)
- Walla Walla
A few things jump out at me here. One is the sheer reach this collection has, as is evident by the number of comments and the number of “likes”. Any museum in the world would kill to have that many signed up “fans” of their online historical documents. This is a kind of populist curation that should be encouraged.
Another is the nature of the pictures: these are not only your standard Edward Curtis portraits, but a wide range of people, posed, unposed, snapshots, etc. and as noted, a lot have individualizing information attached. See the portrait below from the Makah set, for example. Many of the pictures I looked at, even those with areas with which I am pretty familiar, were completely new to me.
A third thing I think is cool is the informal Bulletin Board that has developed, a question and answer clearing house for peer to peer historical exchange. Together with the tens of thousands of comments and the almost 500 photos added by users, a community is developing around these images.
No doubt there is a downside to this collection. The photos are poorly sourced (though try a tool like tineye.com’s reverse photo search engine) and the resolution is usually quite poor – these have a quality of being “found on the ground”. There is a decontextualization in their overwhelming numbers. Like any photo set, it is possibly to fetishize these images and troll around in them and somehow it can become profoundly and paradoxically ahistorical – the distancing of the “cold” medium is a message in its own right. There may also be pictures posted in contradiction to cultural traditions around the display of images of dead people, for example. So I don’t naively take this as a uniform, unproblematic good thing. But I am convinced it is something that would in itself provide a fascinating study of identity and image in the creation of virtual communities.
OK, enjoy the pictures and I hope these links are stable!