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Encapsulating World Culture: The Rise and the Imaginary of Microfilm (1920s to 1950s)

Applicant Lugon Olivier
Number 159876
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Section d'histoire et esthétique du cinéma Faculté des lettres Université de Lausanne
Institution of higher education University of Lausanne - LA
Main discipline Visual arts and Art history
Start/End 01.05.2015 - 30.04.2018
Approved amount 498'517.00
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All Disciplines (2)

Discipline
Visual arts and Art history
Communication sciences

Keywords (7)

media history; cultural heritage; knowledge transfer; archive; microfilm; photography; digital humanities

Lay Summary (French)

Lead
Toute la culture du monde sur pellicule : essor et imaginaire du microfilm des années 1920 aux années 1950Durant des décennies avant l’avènement de l’électronique, le microfilm a suscité les espoirs d’une relève du papier comme support d’accumulation et de diffusion améliorées du savoir grâce au traitement et à la conservation de vastes quantités de documents textuels et visuels, au service des bibliothèques, des institutions publiques et des entreprises. C’est largement à travers lui que s’est ainsi jouée la transition entre la matérialité du papier et la supposée immatérialité du numérique : l’étude de son histoire, celle d’un "chaînon manquant" entre l’ère du livre et la culture numérique, s’avère par là essentielle pour saisir la préhistoire des "digital humanities".
Lay summary

Des années 1920 aux années 1950, d’importants développements technologiques, de forts investissements financiers et d’intenses discussions font naître de grands espoirs quant à l’avenir de la documentation grâce à ce nouveau support. Le microfilm, aussi appelé "photographie fonctionnelle" ou "textuelle" à l'époque, semblait promettre pour cela une efficacité inégalée, une réduction des coûts de production et de stockage, ainsi que l’accès à des informations plus nombreuses ou peu accessibles avant lui.

Si l’histoire du microfilm a ses racines en Europe, c’est aux États-Unis que la technologie va être développée sous la forme de vastes programmes de reproduction de livres et de journaux, de manuscrits et d’images. Par le biais d’une étroite collaboration entre institutions publiques et industrie photographique, les Etats-Unis aspiraient à dominer une technologie ayant le potentiel de changer la façon dont l’information serait à l’avenir collectée, traitée et partagée au niveau mondial.

Ce projet de recherche explorera les multiples vecteurs technologiques, culturels, économiques et politiques qui ont agi sur l’essor du microfilm. On examinera des projets concrets menés avant, durant et après la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, ainsi que les réseaux personnels, institutionnels, les échanges transnationaux ayant contribué à cet essor, en particulier à travers la coopération internationale mise en place dans le cadre de l’UNESCO après la guerre.

L’histoire du microfilm condense un imaginaire remontant aux fondements de la photographie : le rêve de tout collectionner, de permettre l’accès à des archives visuelles illimitées et de conférer aux objets matériels la mobilité de leur reproduction. Si le microfilm est ainsi partie prenante de l’histoire de la photographie, son étude est susceptible d’apporter tout autant aux sciences de l’information et des bibliothèques, à l’histoire culturelle des médias et des sciences, et de mieux comprendre par là certains grands enjeux de la société de l’information actuelle.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 30.03.2015

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Employees

Publications

Publication
“'La vie des images': Paul Vanderbilt, l’archive et les théories de la photographie”
Nerini Davide (2018), “'La vie des images': Paul Vanderbilt, l’archive et les théories de la photographie”, in Berton Mireille, Trenka Susie, Bouchez Charlotte (ed.), 47-62.
“Bewirtschaften: Verwertungsprozesse digitaler Bildsammlungen”
BlaschkeEstelle (2016), “Bewirtschaften: Verwertungsprozesse digitaler Bildsammlungen”, in Heumann Ina, Güttler Nils (ed.), Kadmos, Berlin, 111-132.
“Die Geschichte des Mikrofilms (1920er bis 1950er Jahre)”
BlaschkeEstelle (2016), “Die Geschichte des Mikrofilms (1920er bis 1950er Jahre)”, in Fotogeschichte: Beiträge zur Geschichte und Ästhetik der Fotografie, 36(140), 67-69.
“Installed for your protection. Mikrofilm als Medium der Bürokratie”
BlaschkeEstelle (2016), “Installed for your protection. Mikrofilm als Medium der Bürokratie”, in Siegert Bernhard, Vogl Joseph, Balke Friedrich (ed.), Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Paderborn, 101-113.
"Augmenter les images: la photographie et les technologies de l'information"
Nerini Davide, Blaschke Estelle (ed.), "Augmenter les images: la photographie et les technologies de l'information".
"Introduction. Augmenter les images: la photographie et les technologies de l'information"
Blaschke Estelle, Nerini Davide, "Introduction. Augmenter les images: la photographie et les technologies de l'information", in Nerini Davide, Blaschke Estelle (ed.), Macula, Paris, ---.
“The camera that takes a face, can take a page: Microfilm as a scientific aid“
BlaschkeEstelle, “The camera that takes a face, can take a page: Microfilm as a scientific aid“, in Hillnhütter Sara, Tietjen Friedrich, Klamm Stefanie (ed.), ---.

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
"Photography. The Black Box of History" Talk given at a conference "When Images Became Data" 16.03.2018 Ryerson Image Center, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada Blaschke Estelle;
"Camera Memoria" Talk given at a conference "‘Browsable pictures’. La photographie dans le système bibliothécaire américain" 19.01.2018 LARCA, Université Paris-Diderot, France Nerini Davide;
"Photographie et technologies de l’information" Talk given at a conference "Feuilleter, extraire, juxtaposer. Les dynamiques matérielles de l’information visuelle" 16.11.2017 Université de Lausanne, Switzerland Nerini Davide;
"Images and texts reproduced" Talk given at a conference "“Iconographe” dans les années 1960 : l’invention d’un métier" + "L’iconographie au service des bibliothèques. Le cas de Paul Vanderbilt et Edgar Breitenbach à la Library of Congress" 10.07.2017 Université de Lausanne, Switzerland Lugon Olivier; Nerini Davide;
"medien | denken" Individual talk "Bilder als digitales Kapital" 04.07.2017 Institut für Medienwissenschaft, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany Blaschke Estelle;
"Photo Archives VI: The Place of Photography" Talk given at a conference "Saving Space, Mediating Place: Photography and the Reproduction of Collections and Archives" 20.04.2017 University of Oxford, Great Britain and Northern Ireland Blaschke Estelle;
"Workshop Kolleg Forschergruppe BildEvidenz" Talk given at a conference "Photography as Digital Capital" 13.04.2017 Freie Universität Berlin, Germany Blaschke Estelle;
"USC LACMA History of Photography Seminar" Individual talk "‘We may go down in the history as a Film Age’: the Rise and Imaginary of Microfilm" 19.01.2017 Visual Studies Research Institute, University of Southern California, United States of America Blaschke Estelle;
"Le Monde des regards. Le tournant visuel des sciences sociales" Individual talk "Corbis, Getty et le marché de l’image dans l’ère numérique" 15.12.2016 Université de Genève, Switzerland Blaschke Estelle;
"Exposer les savoirs à travers la photographie: entre pédagogie et communication de masse" Talk given at a conference "Lumière froide et film fixe : les Films Silf, 1912" + "‘The camera that takes a face can take a page.’ Microfilm as a Scientific Aid" + "'Knowledge by Manipulation'. Savoir historique et pratiques editoriales dans l’archivage de la photographie" 16.11.2016 Université de Lausanne, Switzerland Lugon Olivier; Blaschke Estelle; Nerini Davide;
"Geography of Photography. Made in Germany?" Individual talk "Eine andere Avantgarde. Lucia Moholy und die Fotografie" 20.10.2016 Kunsthistorisches Institut, Universität Zürich, Switzerland Blaschke Estelle;
"The Making of Humanities V" Talk given at a conference "Creating Infrastructures. Microfilm as a Scientific Aid" 05.10.2016 Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, United States of America Blaschke Estelle;
"Science and Technology by Other Means" Talk given at a conference "Creating Infrastructures. The Rise and Imaginary of Microfilm" 30.08.2016 Convention Center, Barcelona, Spain Blaschke Estelle;
"A l'image du monde: musée et collections de documentation visuelle et sonore autour de 1900" Talk given at a conference "‘An entire handbag is contained in a handbag’: the advent of microfilm as a tool of modern documentation" 05.11.2015 Université de Lausanne, Switzerland Blaschke Estelle;
"Shifting Terrain: Mapping Transnational American Art History" Talk given at a conference "Creating Infrastructures. The Rise and Imaginary of Microfilm" + "Disseminating Lots of Photographs: Paul Vanderbilt and the Microfilming Project of the FSA-OWI Collection at the Library of Congress, 1942–1944" 16.10.2015 Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, United States of America Blaschke Estelle; Nerini Davide;
"Kann man das wegwerfen? Fotografie, Gedächtnis, Ökonomie (I)" Talk given at a conference "Die Bibliothek in der Handtasche. Die Geschichte des Mikrofilms" 24.09.2015 Universität Luzern, Switzerland Blaschke Estelle;
"Das Fotografische Dispositiv" Talk given at a conference "Probleme der Corpusbildung" 21.05.2015 Hochschule der Bildenden Künste Braunschweig, Germany Blaschke Estelle;


Self-organised

Title Date Place

Communication with the public

Communication Title Media Place Year
Talks/events/exhibitions "Quo vadis photography?" Western Switzerland German-speaking Switzerland 2017
Talks/events/exhibitions "Allmacht Algorithmus?", Europäischer Monat der Fotografie International 2016

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
124507 L’exposition moderne de la photographie, 1920-1970 01.04.2009 Project funding (Div. I-III)
179093 On the Verge of the Computer Age: Microphotography and Image Retrieval Systems (1950s to 1980s) 01.05.2018 Project funding (Div. I-III)

Abstract

For a long time, the history of photography has been written as a history of the creative depiction of the world, as a history of authors, styles and genres. This research project sheds light on photography’s purely reproductive function through the scarcely studied topic of microphotography and microfilm as a medium for knowledge production and diffusion and for the handling and conservation of vast amounts of textual and pictorial data in the service of libraries, public institutions, and businesses. The project focuses on the period of the 1920s to the 1950s as a time of radical technological development, in which intense debates, high financial investments and equally high expectations in the future of documentation and knowledge transfer through microfilming occurred. Microfilm promised unparalleled efficiency, the reduction of production and storage costs and the possibility of making available more, or previously inaccessible visual and textual information. While the modern history of microfilm is rooted in Europe, the technology was further elaborated, tested and applied in the US during this precise period in form of large-scale copying programs for books, newspapers, foreign manuscripts, pictorial material and government and business data. In a close collaboration between public and research institutions and the photographic industry, the US aspired not only to develop microfilm as a modern medium of documentation, but also to take lead in the hope to eventually monopolize a future, ‘global’ technology that had the potential to change the ways in which information was collected, processed and shared. This research project will explore the technological, cultural, economic and political vectors that led to the rise of microfilm. This will be done through the examination of concrete microfilming projects of textual and pictorial material before, during and after World War II in the US as well as in Europe. The project also proposes to study the networks of people and institutions that advanced the development of microfilm, as well as the transnational discussions and international cooperation in the context of UNESCO in the immediate post-war period. Thus, it will provide new and important insights into this largely neglected, but very important chapter of the history of media culture and our information age.The history of microfilm, also called “functional” or “textual photography” at that time, ties into the earliest and deepest imaginaries present since the invention of photography: the dream of ‘collecting everything’, of providing access to vast archives and of rendering material objects mobile by means of their reproduction. Indeed, it is a genuine part of the history of photography and film, but its study also provides important research material for other disciplines in which microphotography has played a role, that is library and information sciences, media history and the history of sciences. The present project will therefore have an important interdisciplinary aspect, as well as investigating, as is rarely done in the humanities, the interplay of 'theoretical' and 'practical' aspects of the medium.As its main hypotheses, this project posits that microfilm, as part of the modern techniques of documentation and communication, needs to be reconsidered as a missing link between the world of paper and the digital. It allowed for the transition between the materiality of paper and the ‘immaterial’ nature of the digital. Its study is vital for the understanding of today’s developments and makes an important contribution to the writing of the pre-history of the digital humanities.The research group comprising the project leader (Olivier Lugon), a senior researcher (Estelle Blaschke) and a candoc (Davide Nerini) will produce several research publications on the history of microfilm and its related issues, including a book (E. Blaschke), a Ph.D. thesis (D. Nerini) and an anthology on the theoretician of iconographic archives Paul Vanderbilt (ed. D. Nerini) as well as an edited volume based on several planned conferences and research seminars (ed. E. Blaschke, O. Lugon and D. Nerini).
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