White Collar Photography: Paper machines and the labor practices of knowledge organization

Davide Nerini Université de Lausanne

This note ensues from my experience with photo archives during a research stay in the United States in 2017. The principal object of my inquiries was the idea of the photo archive itself, the way it came into being within the institutionalized space of public libraries, and the practices of knowledge organization–the collecting, processing, storing and transmission of pictures as visual information–that it has crystallized during its formative years, from the late 1930s until the post-World War II era.

At the starting point of my research project was an American librarian, Paul Vanderbilt (1905-1995), and an iconic photo archive, the Farm Security Administration (FSA, 1935-1942) photograph collection, for which the librarian was asked in 1940 to address the “problem of filing visual materials” and to set new routine operations for the maintaining of a fast-growing photo file (it had already accumulated some 70,000 pictures then). Fascinated by the scale of the undertaking and deeply interested in working with photographs–the class of documents which, in his view, “had received the least technical and thorough attention for filing and preservation”–Vanderbilt drew up an ambitious plan for the reorganization of the entire archival system, which he eventually executed between 1943 and 1945 as Visual Information Specialist.

The resulting collection, today at the Library of Congress, has since been recognized as a “prime cultural artifact of the New Deal”, and its custodian granted the authorship of “one of the most literate, self-conscious, and elegant solutions” in the history of photo archives.[1] However, as I will argue, a highly intricate system of knowledge organization as the one designed by Paul Vanderbilt for the FSA project considerably exceeds the competence of a single individual. A “chained mechanism” and a “mass operation”, the archival process was conceived as a human-powered production line, with the work divided into a long sequence of operations that 20 white-collar workers could perform harmoniously, at an increased pace. Vanderbilt was thus applying to the management of a photo archive what he called “modern techniques” derived chiefly from the “worlds of science and business”–that is, “duplicating machinery [i.e. photography], numerical controls, proper separation of function, anticipation of changes, and sound office administration practice”[2].

The idea was to detach what a visual document amalgamates, to reduce all that is complex in a photograph to its simplest elements and to devote a specific operation to each–from the accession analysis to the assignment of the subject class numbers, including the editing of captions, the typing of index cards or the stamping of serial numbers on mounted pictures. At the heart of the archival process was the index card. As carriers, cards enabled the mounted pictures to move as standardized and material pieces of information from workstation to workstation and thus to be engaged in the labor practices of knowledge organization. By referring to the photo file as a “machine”–an analogy used some 70 years later by media historian Markus Krajewski as core hypothesis for his seminal book on the card indexing system[3]–Vanderbilt allocated to the index card a second, crucial function. They operated as controllers of the chain work, allowing the staff to records special cases, inconsistent decisions or, more generally, to integrate explanatory annotations at a specific step of the process line. Through index cards, Vanderbilt was able to supply the archival “machine” with the necessary interface control and feedback loop that made the whole system work.[4]

Although the system had been devised to be as highly standardized and automatized as possible, the amount of thought and energy that was expended on questions of human labor and the material practices of meaning production, which combine to make the editing of photographs a subjective and embodied experience[5], is extraordinary. Because of the visual nature of the processed documents, Vanderbilt claimed that the making of a photo file necessarily involves human exercises in arbitrary judgment and interpretation: “the file procedure is not free from arbitrary or subjective interpretation. It is assumed that this is impossible.” Critical links in the chain, some operations were considered by Vanderbilt as “precision work” that not only “must be performed by individuals and not by machines”, but even required “more than a couple of Junior Clerks.”[6] Yet scholars still haven’t fully acknowledged those skilled professionals who, through their work on the file, shaped the way material has been made available to patrons. Such shortcomings seem to follow on the idea that as the labor is subdivided into routine operations under increased mechanization and centralized management, white-collars “[are] estranged from the intellectual potentialities and aspect of [their] work”, pushing historians to overlook those individuals as meaningless units whose skills and personality had been “routinized in the name of increased and cheaper productivity” [7].

Preliminary investigations into the life of those who worked under Vanderbilt’s direction, however, revealed a significant diversity and richness of profiles. Take Marion Lambert, for instance. Graduated with a MA in anthropology from Radcliffe College in 1940, she joined the staff of the FSA project in 1944 as caption editor and assistant for classification operations. Between September 1945 and March 1946, she eventually served as acting chief during Vanderbilt’s absence in Germany. Her presence might have significantly shaped the FSA collection, knowing that Vanderbilt adopted the scheme devised by the Cross Cultural Survey at the Institute of Human Relations at Yale University, where she worked as a research anthropologist from 1942 to 1944. Take Edgard Breitenbach as well. An art historian from the “Hamburg School” and early member of the circle around the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, he participated in Aby Warburg’s seminars, assisted Fritz Saxl in preparing image series for the well-known atlas Mnemosyne and completed his PhD under Erwin Panofsky at the University of Hamburg in 1927. As he told years later, Vanderbilt hired him in July 1944 as technical supervisor with special emphasis on classification “when he heard that [Breitenbach] was an iconographer.”[8] His work on the file deserves to be investigated, in my opinion, knowing that this assignment eventually led him to serve as chief of the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress – which became the definite home of the FSA collection in 1946 –between 1956 and 1973.

However, actual identification of these individualities among the FSA archive is proving to be extremely difficult, due to the idea of transparency with which record-management work has been traditionally associated. “Obliged by extolling their own professional myth of impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity”, as the archival theorists Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook put it, archivists and librarians took care not to leave slightest trace of their routine work behind, carefully hiding what the two authors have called “the power of archives.”[9] In the case of the FSA file, such denial led to a lack of documentation or any intelligible trace that might help to establish the individual responsibilities in the way Marion Lambert, Edgar Breitenbach, or other marginalized members of the staff wielded power over the photo archive through their labor practices of knowledge organization. How can one write about the archive as an intellectual and collective construct, when all the individual qualities or personal contributions have been carefully removed–that is, when white-collars’ signatures on the chain products are no more readable?

[1] Alan Trachtenberg, “From Image to Story: Reading the File,” in Documenting America, 1935-1943 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 43–73.

[2] Vanderbilt, “Résumé of professional experience”, Washington D.C., February 1942, 2.

[3] Markus Krajewski, Paper Machines : About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929, History and Foundations of Information Science (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011).

[4] Vanderbilt, “Illustrated proposal to introduce scientific procedure in the maintenance of a photograph file”, Washington D.C., December 1942, 6.

[5] Anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards has summarized similar arguments in respect to the photo collection of the Surrey Survey in Elizabeth Edwards, “Photographs, Mounts, and the Tactile Archive,” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, no. 19 (2014): 4.

[6] Vanderbilt, “Uncorrected draft [Notes on classification for the Stryker project]”, December 1950:18.

[7] C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (Oxford University Press, 1969), 227.

[8] Oral history interview with Edgar Breitenbach, interview by Paul Cummings, February 18, 1975, 44, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[9] Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” Archival Science 2, no. 1–2 (March 1, 2002): 1–19.

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