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On the Verge of the Computer Age: Microphotography and Image Retrieval Systems (1950s to 1980s)

English title On the Verge of the Computer Age: Microphotography and Image Retrieval Systems (1950s to 1980s)
Applicant Lugon Olivier
Number 179093
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 01.05.2018 - 31.07.2020
Approved amount 260'232.00
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All Disciplines (2)

Visual arts and Art history
Communication sciences

Keywords (8)

archeology of the digital; photography; electronic data management; microphotography; media history; image retrieval; knowledge transfer; digital humanities

Lay Summary (French)

Au seuil du numérique. Microformes et systèmes automatisés de recherche des images des années 1950 aux années 1980Avant l’avènement du numérique, le microfilm ainsi que d’autres supports photographiques comme la microfiche ont permis de traiter, de stocker et de conserver de vastes quantités de documents textuels et visuels au service des bibliothèques, des institutions publiques et des entreprises. C’est largement à travers la microphotographie, terme générique pour toutes formes de réduction de la documentation sur film, que s’est jouée la transition entre la matérialité du papier et la supposée immatérialité du numérique.
Lay summary

En se focalisant sur les années 1950 aux années 1980, ce projet de recherche s’intéresse aux multiples instruments développés par les industries photographiques et informatiques pour accéder à ces « micro-images », leur associer des données et pour offrir ainsi de nouveaux moyens de gérer et de donner accès à des quantités inédites d’images. Il explore l’évolution des appareils de « lecture mécanique » sur écran, leur rapport à l’informatisation de la société et à la transformation de l’espace des bibliothèques et des bureaux. Pour cela, il examine différents projets concrets de reproduction de masse dans leur interaction avec des dispositifs électroniques. Si la microphotographie a suscité de grands espoirs quant à l’avenir immatériel de la documentation et à la démocratisation de l’information et du savoir, le projet s’interroge aussi sur les limites du médium face à l’essor de l’ordinateur, qui le reléguera au statut « passif » d’outil de conservation plutôt que de diffusion des informations.
Au croisement des sciences de l’information, de l’histoire culturelle des médias et des sciences, ce projet propose une histoire élargie de la photographie comme technologie de l’information et une contribution à l’écriture de l’histoire des humanités numériques.  

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 18.04.2018

Responsible applicant and co-applicants


Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
159876 Encapsulating World Culture: The Rise and the Imaginary of Microfilm (1920s to 1950s) 01.05.2015 Project funding (Div. I-III)


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 styles and genres. This research project sheds light on a forgotten chapter in the history of photography and film, that of microphotography. Building on the collaborative project “Encapsulating World Culture. The Rise and Imaginary of Microfilm (1920s to 1950s)” the two-years project “On the Verge of the Computer Age. Microphotography and Image Retrieval Systems (1950s to 1980s)” extends the study of the history of microphotography (microfilm, microfiche, etc.) as a medium for the cost-effective reproduction of vast amounts of textual and pictorial material to the postwar period. It explores the quest for automation in the service of libraries, public institutions, and businesses and microphotography’s interaction with electronic data management as well as notions of photography as an information technology. The project follows five research threads: First, the development of annotation and retrieval systems. While cameras excelled at the mass reproduction, the development of viable methods for the fast and accurate retrieval of film content was a long and demanding process. Yet, the various trials and improvements of enriching photographic images with machine-readable data and code and their management offer important insights into today’s systems for digital image retrieval. Starting in the 1960s, the major photographic manufactures, in particular Eastman-Kodak turned towards automation, and the major computer firms like IBM and Remington Rand got involved into microphotography. Second, the project proposes to trace the improvement of the screen technology. The reading machines for viewing microfilm and other microforms changed from flawed and bulky machines into more user-friendly and mobile devices. The screens transformed the library and office space and shaped the researcher’s work with historical sources, laying ground for the user’s adaptation to the screen and to “mechanical reading” as a day-to-day practice. Third, the film roll, which dominated the market for several decades, in particular in the field of data management for business and industry, was challenged by new forms, such as the microfiche (a flat, rectangular film sheet), the aperture card (a machine-readable punch card with inserted negative) and the micro-card (a opaque card with printed micro-content). All these forms brought about different uses and different ways of handling, organizing and viewing the material. Fourth, the project examines the creation of large-scale projects, the institutionalization of practices, but also the adjustment of expectations. The early imaginary, for example, of building “libraries on film” was reduced to more realistic undertakings. An important development starting in the 1960s was the increasing content curation and the publication of image collections on film rather than in print. Bibliographical and other historical sources were assembled to micro-histories on many topics. This was as much an attempt to approach the information overflow in scientific research as it was a way to re-cycle and re-circulate research material in form of a new, modern medium. Finally, the dominance of American companies and institutions in pushing the global application of microphotography was increasingly challenged by European manufactures as well as through the policies and regulatory work undertaken by the intergovernmental organization UNESCO. As the main hypothesis, this project posits that microphotography, 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 age. 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. Moreover, considering the emergence of seminal media and reproduction techniques (i.e. computer technology and Xerox copying) in the 1960s, microphotography shifted towards a tool for creating “durable data” at a time when information became valuable and thus had to be protected. However, given its various shortcomings it eventually turned from the idea of an active tool into a passive medium. Based on the excellent teamwork and output of the first project, the research group will consist of myself, Estelle Blaschke as a scientific collaborator (80%) and Davide Nerini as a doctoral candidate (100%). The project will produce important groundwork for teaching seminars and several research publications on the history of microphotography and its related issues. This include a book (Estelle Blaschke), a Ph.D. thesis on Paul Vanderbilt, a theoretician of iconographic archives (Davide Nerini) as well as an edited volume based on the international conference “Photography and Information Technology” organized by UNIL in cooperation with EPFL. Taken together, the project will strengthen the Swiss center of competence for the history of photography, film and media at the University of Lausanne and stimulate and expand discussions in the field of photography and film studies.