Orphan Photography Archives

Photo 334 from Mirror World

People are so endlessly creative that the lost and found pile is certain to be equally large. I mentioned in an earlier post about the preservation of film that there are innumerable orphan films, more of these in fact than film with clear lines of provenance. Other times, the copyright on a work is intentionally left unclear, lost to time and memory, by the peculiar generosity of some talented individuals.

And sometimes you find something stuck to a wad of gum on the sidewalk, blown about in the wind until it catches on some barbed geegaw poking up, rusty & askew. Stuff like you’ll find at Found Magazine, or more narrowly at the magnificently stupid & addictive blog Passive Aggressive Notes, which archives passive-aggressive notes from roommates, neighbors, coworkers, and strangers. (I need a scanner so I can send in a years-old note written on Kleenex tissue that was left on my car by a neighbor in a plastic bag weighted down by rocks…)

I wanted to highlight three collections today that archive photographic misfits & the public domain. Partly it’s a way to share my joy from finding the collections, but it’s also in honor & in deference to all of those whom I borrow from in assembling this floating futurist island Robotic Librarian.

Photo 220 from Mirror World

First up is Mirror World, which archives photos of unknown origin. There are some incredible treasures to be found here, true marvels of photography that seem as though they’ve lain dormant over centuries, spontaneously generated before the invention of tintypes, daguerreotypes and photograuvre. He currently hosts about 300 photos, and would like to know about any others if you might know of some. One caveat: there are a number of nudes, primarily of women, on this site. I’m not talking Hustler or Nugget-style photos; in fact there’s nothing that would be out of place in the Kinsey Institute Photography Collection. Merely a warning for those at work, or disinclined to view such things.

FBI Urgent Warning by OWI, ca. 1943, National Archive — PINGNews

Photojournalism is also a rich vein for sifting by magpies. Ping News on Flickr has assembled a massive collection of public domain photos of government origin. Split up into categories for Library of Congress, NARA, Photos and Posters from the New Deal Era, State Department and Related Agencies, Making History, DOD and related, NASA & space images and International Organizations, this is clearly a museum worth visiting.

From the Open Library scan of The Story of Jack and the Giants, ill by Richard Doyle

from The Story of Jack and the Giants,
London: Cundall & Addey 1851, ill. by Richard Doyle

Finally, there are numerous organizations attempting to assemble a global archive of lost and/or public domain materials. Finding these materials can be especially difficult, since it’s impossible to know how to find a lost collection if you don’t know it exists. The Internet Archive is “building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form.” Luckily for us, “like a paper library, we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, and the general public.” In an interesting update, which will likely have antecedents I am unaware of, and will likely influence every other state in the union, “the Internet Archive is now officially a library according to the State of California!” as of 25 June, 2007. I know this isn’t, strictly speaking, a photography archive, but the spirit is the same. And book scanners are glorified high-resolution cameras, for traditional scanning equipment is just too slow as I understand it.

Anybody out there in Library-land know more about this library-status precedent for an online collection? Is it a precedent? Please enjoy and patronize today’s collection, and if you know of anything of substance that I missed, please do let me know.


3 Responses to Orphan Photography Archives

  1. PINGNEWS says:

    Thanks so much for letting people know about pingnews. You may be interested to know that we’ve also assembled other materials, archival video, broll, sound, reference tools of various kinds, and more. While it is always a work in progress, we continually try to improve our service so that more people can create, research, find what they are looking for — and get some of the benefits from people who have some expertise in an area.

    Good luck with your efforts.

    david shapinsky

  2. Vaucanson's Duck says:

    Mentioning your collection was the least I could do, there is so much valuable material there. I only wish I had something to contribute to the archive…

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