Luminous-Lint: A Dynamic Genealogy of the Photograph

Unidentified photographer – stereocard with applied colour: ‘Napoleon III, Emperor of the French’ c1858 (George Eastman Museum, Gift of Donald K. Weber, 2007.0188.0001)

It is not so much single photographs that interest me as establishing connections between them.

Introduction

A photograph is a point of interconnection. A nexus. It shows us something which, however recently it was made, is already in the past. It crosses time and space engendering an uncanny sense of immediacy. This is a complex process because each viewer brings to each photograph the peculiar lens of their own experience. The feelings, ideas and meanings that a photograph has for the individual are modulated by personal circumstance generating myriad possible nuances of interpretation.

But if photographs have a complex relationship with the time and place they depict and those who interpret them, they have a similarly complex relationship with each other. The history of photography is not a linear narrative but a web of resonant interconnections that imbue the medium with its characteristically protean heritage. It is a kind of dynamic genealogy in which the roots of the medium’s family tree draw on the raw materials of time and place to rise though our consciousness branching in continuously evolving ways. This combination of the variety, subjectivity, and contingent mutuality of photographs makes it impossible to define a categorically unified historical narrative.

It is this challenge that the British–Canadian computer-systems expert and photo-enthusiast Alan Griffiths has set out to address. The result is Luminous-Lint, a dynamically networked, multiply indexed database in the form of a website that classifies photographs as multivalent entities capable of forming many different taxonomic relationships. That more organic, responsive way of considering photographs within the wider history of the medium has proved both useful and effective, establishing this as the go-to site for academics, institutions, collectors, and devotees all over the world.

So, how did Luminous-Lint begin, how does it work, and what can we learn from its multidimensional web of interconnecting information? These were just some of the questions I was keen to put to Alan Griffiths.

Alasdair Foster


Unidentified photographer – hand-coloured salt print: George Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon c1850–55 (private collection of Richard T. Rosenthal)

Interview

What sparked your interest in the history of photography?

I started out as an archaeologist and bought my first serious camera when I was about eighteen. I used it as a tool to document my travels, archaeological sites and finds. And, although I bought books on photography from an early age, my perspective on the medium remained extremely limited. That all changed when I came across a book by Arthur Tress in a shop in Sheffield. It hit me like a thunderbolt: here was a totally fresh way of thinking about photography. From then on there was no going back. I began taking a much wider range of photographs. But it was more than that… this book by Tress extended my vision. I wanted to know more about photohistory, and I still do.

What prompted you to begin Luminous-Lint?

I’d been lecturing on multimedia at the University of Sheffield when, in 1999, I was approached to become the Chief Information Officer for a dotcom start-up in Los Angeles. I did that for a couple of years and then the company folded, as most dotcoms do. This gave me time to reflect on what I might pursue as a stimulating career. I decided that learning about the history of photography, and doing it well, could be fascinating. My university teaching had given me an expertise in building large databases, and I felt that those skills could allow me to structure an extensive range of diverse information.

John Plumbe Jr. – daguerreotype of United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., east front elevation c1846 (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, DAG no. 1230, LC-USZC4-3595 DLC [colour film copy transparency post-1992])

How did you start off?

Between 2002 and 2005 I designed the storage systems and started to amass the biographies of photographers. First, I took all the most significant general histories of photography and ensured that the photographers listed there were all added in. Then I went through histories of different photographic genres to see who else should be included. That said, the intention has never been to include everybody, but to ensure there is a selection of key people.

On the sixth of December 2005 Luminous-Lint was made public.

Why is it called Luminous-Lint?

The name connects two ideas. The first is straightforward enough, that photographs depend on, are born of, light (lumen in Latin), but also that to illuminate is to improve understanding. Lint is a piece of fluff. While this can be the bane of film photographers, I am drawing on a more metaphorical idea Dirck Halstead suggested of something that is almost unnoticed, but sticks with you until you understand the context that gives it meaning. So, Luminous-Lint sums it up: connections between photographs, ideas and people to help improve our knowledge.

Unidentified French photographer – daguerreotype view of Pisa along the Arno River 1844 (J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XT.265.20)

So, what exactly is Luminous-Lint in this case?

It’s a repository of information on most aspects of photohistory, though it doesn’t cover purely technical things like cameras, optics, or chemistry. It has no paper files, everything is in the database.

It is perhaps easier to say what Luminous-Lint is not, rather than what it is. In the publishing world, books and articles are static creations that once published remain fixed. Blogs tend to the same static format and individual posts are rarely if ever updated. Luminous-Lint is more like Wikipedia in that information is continually being added. With over 21,000 photographers with over 50,000 name variants the scale of the project is certainly large, but it is highly structured and flexible so that links keep evolving as new pathways through the history of photography emerge.

Who is it for?

The users are diverse, from curators, researchers and cataloguers in institutions through collectors and photo-enthusiasts wanting to contextualise images, to photographers seeking to understand their place within the historical trends of their medium.

[Left] Negretti & Zambra – undated hand-coloured carte-de-visite of [the French tight-rope walker] Blondin (private collection of Jerilyn Marshall).
[Right] Unidentified photographer/creator – carte-de-visite being used at the Exposition Universelle in Paris 1867 (National Gallery of Canada, The Origins of Photography: The Matthew R. Isenburg and Enhanced Isenburg Collections 1840–1880)

Collecting the work of the past, especially the nineteenth century, is often a matter of searching out the scarce. But as one gets closer to the present day, the number and availability of photographs must become overwhelming. How have you dealt with that in terms of deciding what to include and what to leave out from the past few decades?

Excellent point, but Luminous-Lint has very different objectives. The intention of the project is to use the nineteenth-century material to establish a framework of themes that continue through the histories of photography to the present day. This does not mean that I need to include every photographer, but rather selected examples that fill specific gaps in the Luminous-Lint framework. As the project evolves, the gaps within the overall network become clearer and more precise. That said, I have to go through many millions of images each year in order to locate examples that fill these specific gaps.

So, it is constantly evolving…

Yes. It is important to understand the overall structure of Luminous-Lint to appreciate how it progresses. I start with images and use them to construct ‘visual indexes’ that create multidimensional links between images. There are currently over 13,000 such indexes that form an integrated network of relationships. Using the visual indexes, I then add text, video, and other forms of media to provide further context for the images, all of which can be added to and enhanced as required. The visual indexes in turn support the Photohistory Visualiser or PhV, which allows a user to travel seamlessly through a particular theme of interest.

Kansas City Scenic Co – promotional photographic postcard (private collection of Christopher Steiner)

While some themes are well documented in books and journals, others remain under-researched, such as the ways in which professional photographers and photographic suppliers marketed themselves. For example in the postcard [above] promoting the Kansas City Scenic Company.

In the past, the history of photography has not paid much attention to popular ephemera, which often involve novel decorative additions and even embroidery as in the postcard of the famous bullfighter, Cayetano Ordonez [below]. And, as the visual indexes improve, they continue to reveal fresh insights as, for example, in the image by Chretien [also below], which is cross-referenced in a number of ways including its military subject, use of decorative border and the cabinet-card format. The indexing includes not only borders printed onto the image, but the decorative frames created in photo albums into which the print is inserted.


Unidentified photographer – embroidered photographic postcard of the famous Spanish bullfighter Cayetano Ordonez (Nino de la Palma) 1921 (private collection of Barbara Levine / projectB.com)

It is only in the last few decades that postcards have been examined in depth as a part of the history of photography. Luminous-Lint includes examples from private collections around the world, but rather than dealing with postcards as a distinct format they are integrated into themes as required.

Chretien (Arras, France) – oval studio portrait of a military man within a military mask, undated cabinet card (private collection of Robert E. Jackson)

The use of decorative masks and the history of hand-colouring are distinct topics, as is the history of military portraits. The rich connections within Luminous-Lint mean that a single photograph can be explored from many different perspectives.

Unidentified album maker / unidentified photographer – China Pattern Album page design with an undated carte-de-visite studio portrait of two girls (private collection of Pam Ferrazzutti)

The ordering of photographs in albums, books and collections provides essential contextual information that reflects temporal and mental structures, conscious or not, that can assist researchers. The way a photograph is presented on a page can also be significant. Whenever possible, Luminous-Lint preserves sequencing information and includes any decorative framing.


What is your research methodology?

It is the reverse of the usual approach. Rather than preparing a hypothesis and searching for photographs that support or contradict it, everything on Luminous-Lint evolves from the image base itself. Collect, catalogue, build visual indexes, use these to construct themes and then, only then, write.

One of the big challenges facing an archivist is how to catalogue items. Photographs have a creator, involve one or more techniques, have a subject with many aspects – locations, people, period, action, context and so on. Images can relate to each other in many different ways – it can be quite subjective. How do you create that network of links without it becoming chaotic?

Fortunately, with my background in information science I was already familiar with building classification systems and taxonomies. I knew the systems must be highly flexible and able to keep evolving as the project expands. As new images arrive, the visual indexes are enriched, and new search terms are added as necessary. The network currently consists of many tens of millions of links that permit intuitive navigation through almost any topic. It’s not perfect, but improving all the time.


Unidentified photographer – undated stereocard requesting other stereocards [detail] (private collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus)

One of the risks in the field of photohistory is that whole classes of photography can have their own magazines, journals and monographs, yet be covered in a few brief pages or a single chapter in books that address the history of photography in overview. Stereography falls into this category. Many photographers who made stereographs also used the medium in other ways; it is the interrelationships of an individual practice that can be informative. Luminous-Lint includes over 11,000 examples of stereocards, thousands of biographies and hundreds of millions of links that ensure stereography is integrated into the wider history of photography.


How do you gather the images?

There are many different ways of doing this. Through institutional and private collections, from gallerists and dealers. When the Covid pandemic began, I decided that it would be a pleasant distraction to create Photohistory Quests, a Facebook group through which collectors and curators can suggest images and links. Each post sets a theme or genre of photography to consider. Over the last eighteen months this has revealed many little-known images leading to previously unrecognised connections.

How can people use the images in your archive? Are they for reference only or can they be reproduced and, if so, in what contexts and under what terms?

Luminous-Lint makes clear whether the images are in the public domain or under copyright. Whenever possible, the source of the photograph is given to permit trackback. Users are responsible for checking any rights issues, just as they are with institutional archives. When authors or publishers seek to clear the rights on a photograph, I put them in touch with the copyright owner or rights-management organisation.

Unidentified photographer – gelatin-silver print of telephone operators, late 1940s (Bassenge Photography Auctions, 19th- to 21st-century Photography, 8 December 2021, Lot: 4155)

You prepare online exhibitions of images. How do they function in relation to the archive as a whole?

There are currently around 750 online exhibitions on Luminous-Lint covering a diverse range of themes, from Abstract to Zoos. But exhibitions are only one way of slicing the data. For the past couple of years the emphasis has shifted away from online exhibitions to focus on establishing the visual indexes which provide a much more flexible way of following a particular journey through photographic history.

What has been your most surprising discovery?

Every day photographs arrive that amaze me! But it is not so much single photographs that interest me as establishing connections between them. The concept of a ‘scenic viewpoint’ or Kodak Photo Spot intrigues me. There are extensive groupings of photographs of famous sites that have been taken from almost exactly the same point, for example St. Basil’s in Moscow. With some locations, such as the temples at Baalbek in Lebanon, the viewpoints selected by different photographers are so similar that it is as if there were an X painted on the spot where the tripod should be placed.

Alan Griffiths – screenshot showing part of the Luminous-Lint Visual Index on ‘Lebanon: Baalbek’ from different viewpoints 2021 (© Luminous-Lint)

Why do you think this is?

This is an interesting question given many photographers with different origins, and presumably different sensibilities, have photographed the same location. We do not have evidence that they knew the works of earlier practitioners but, in a competitive world of photographs sold to tourists, they may have done. In well-documented cities such as Rome, it is as if each photographer (and there were many) had a checklist of the archaeological sites to be recorded. With research, it would be possible to create a vast matrix of photographers and locations through which to see and better understand these patterns.

[Left] Unidentified photographer – hand-coloured lantern slide of the Temple of Vesta, Rome c1890 (eBay)
[Right] Comte Frédéric Flachéron – calotype: ‘Temple dit de Vesta, d’Hercule Victor’ 1851 (Harvard Houghton Library, Harrison D. Horblit collection of early photography, Salt Print Survey at Harvard number 8285, HOLLIS number: 8001248216)

Is there an end game?

I have always understood that Luminous-Lint is a long term project and, even now, we are still building the foundations. But, as the structure develops, the gaps become clear and so the ensuing phases are quicker. I want to construct the finest resource I can, and ensure that the datasets will continue after my demise. That is essential. There are hundreds of thousands of webpages on Luminous-Lint and many millions of interconnections. It is a unique resource, and my aim is ultimately to locate it within an institution that recognises its importance.

What have you learned working on Luminous-Lint?

Every photograph is enhanced by understanding the relationships it has with other photographs.

Oscar Gustave Rejlander – albumen print: ‘Day in Town’ c1860 (collection of Moderna Museet, Stockholm, purchased 1965, FM 1965 001 783)

Biographical Notes

Alan Griffiths was born in Morecambe, England, in 1953. He has a bachelor’s degree in prehistory and archaeology (1975), and master’s degrees in archaeology and in information studies (1983) all from Sheffield University, UK. He began his career as an archaeologist but, realising that it is difficult to make a living in this field, he moved into computer systems working as a consultant and academic researcher. He lectured in multimedia at Sheffield University, was a visiting lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts. As a consultant, his clients have included the British Library, NATO, IBM, and Hewlett Packard.

He has been interested in the history of photography for many years and created Luminous-Lint in 2005 to help explore this field in depth. To date, the website includes photographs from almost 4,000 organisations, photographers, photographic galleries and private collectors around the world. Used by major institutions internationally, this ever-expanding online database includes numerous images, biographies, techniques, timelines, and online exhibitions with more than one thousand parallel and interlinked histories of photography. Alan Griffiths lives and works in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Photo: Rafael Goldchain


This interview is a Talking Pictures original.