Yale Photogrammar: searchable, organized archive of 170,000 FSA photos

Yale Photogrammar - Photos from the FSA organized
Yale Photogrammar – Photos from the FSA organized

A Yale University initiative has made 170,000 FSA photos available online in an easily searchable archive called Photogrammar. The US Farm Security Administration’s Office of War Information photography project during the Great Depression was an unbelievable undertaking. A handful of photographers spent a decade chronicling life in the United States as a way to build support for government programs. The work continues to be an inspiration (see Facing Change, for instance, or Everyday USA), but it’s always been tough to take it all in. The Library of Congress’ archive is difficult to navigate; some images might also be on the Flickr Commons, but it’s hard to tell.

You can search by keyword or photographer, but for me the county-by-county map of photos is the best way to navigate. No matter where you are in the US, you can probably find a photo taken within 50 miles. Check out the dot map, too; you can easily see Jack Delano‘s route between Chicago and Los Angeles there, for instance. And looking up Delano, I learned that he was a composer and earned $2,300/year while photographing for the FSA, the equivalent of $39,270.57 in 2014.

I could spend hours looking through this website…

(via a friend on Facebook)

Long lost photos of the Antarctic and Mount St. Helens discovered

Robert Capa’s Mexican Suitcase (previously on dva) surprised the photography world when it was discovered a few years ago. This week, announcement comes of the discovery of a set of undeveloped negatives from the Ross Sea Party of Sir Ernest Shackleton‘s 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was found frozen in a block of ice in a supply hut established by the ill-fated Robert Falcon Scott Terra Nova Expedition. Conservators from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust found the box of photos (pdf) while restoring the supply depot, and have worked to restore the photos. You can see the collection of 22 photos at the Trust’s website.

Closer to the present, and a bit less interesting, comes the discovery of a lost roll of film taken The Columbian newspaper (of Vancouver, Wash.) photographer Reid Blackburn before the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. The film sat in a box in the back of a studio room at the newspaper for more than 30 years. Blackburn died in the volcano’s eruption a few weeks after the photos were taken. Blackburn’s camera was discovered about a week after his body was found following the blast. This roll of film, comprising mostly aerials of the mountain spewing ash, was recently found by the newspaper’s photo assistant. What interests me most about this case is that I don’t know whether something like this could happen with digital photography. It was a major news event and Blackburn’s photos were being taken for the local paper, National Geographic, and the US Geological Survey. A digital take from such a large event would be immediately distributed and backed-up by each entity and wire services. If, on the other hand, some digital photos were accidentally misplaced and forgotten for 30 years, changing formats, bit rot, and damage to drives, would likely make the photos unreadable.

(links via /r/photography)

Who owns the copyright to Vivian Maier’s street photography?

“In Illinois, if a person dies without a will, their property goes to their closest living relatives. But if they literally have no living kin anywhere in the world, then the decedent’s property will ‘escheat’ to the State of Illinois. That rarely happens, though, because the law is written so that the property will go to the decedent’s relatives, even if they are very distant.” – Steven Dawson, a trusts and estates lawyer with Bryan Cave LLP, speaking to Gapers Block

We’ve written about Vivian Maier before (first all the way back in 2009), and you’ve probably read or seen much more. I just saw one of the traveling exhibitions of her work at Brandeis University outside Boston, and it’s well worth going to see her work in person, if you can. There’s a recently-released documentary (trailer above, IMDB) that seeks to get the bottom of just who this woman was. There may be a biopic in the works. There have been exhibitions and publications of her work all around the world. Two books have anthologized her photos: Vivian Maier: Street Photographer and Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows.

All of these books and movies and exhibitions stem from three separate collections of Maier’s work bought at auction after her death. The larger and more well-known collection is John Maloof’s, but Jeffery Goldstein also controls a substantial number of images (here’s a piece on Lens about that collection. A third man, Ron Slattery, bought a smaller collection of negatives and prints in 2007, before Maier’s death, though I can’t find a link that collection. A forthcoming book, Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive, tries to make sense of all of these different collections and the woman herself.

The question remains, however, of just who owns the copyright to these photos. Ordinarily, copyright of unpublished works with a known author stays in place for 70 years after the death of the creator. Maier died in 2009, which means her copyright belongs to her heirs until at least 2079. But because Maier left no will and had no known heirs, the ownership likely goes to the state of Illinois, where Maier died. As Chicago-area web publication Gapers Block reports, “First, the state could do nothing, which would allow the owners of her work to continue with their ventures. Second, if the state decides it is the rightful owner of Maier’s work, cease and desist letters will be sent to the current owners explaining the laws of succession, how the state is now the main beneficiary, and that any selling of her work needs to stop and all profits made would need to be paid to the state.”

Maier’s photographic legacy now is worth thousands, if not millions, of dollars, so the state and the stewards of the various Maier collections have a compelling interest to maintain and exercise their ownership of these materials. It will be interesting to see how this legal situation plays out over the coming years.