230,000 photographs and counting

a page from Wallpaper's online review of John Pawson's book

There was an interview with architectural designer John Pawson on the Guardian website last week, about his new book A Visual Inventory.  “If something catches my eye, wherever, I’ll simply point and shoot,” says Pawson.  He uses a Canon compact camera, and apparently feels bereft if he forgets its spare batteries and extra memory cards when he’s out and about.

The 272 photographs in the book have been chosen from his collection of 230,000.  That selection process must have been quite something, although it looks as if some rather conventional modernist aesthetic criteria were applied, making this “a genuine library of forms, volumes, materials and patterns, as seen through the architect’s eye,” according to the review in Wallpaper.

But my main reaction is – wow.  230,000?  How are they stored, tagged and retrieved?  It’s an amazing number of photographs to have taken, and its scale demands as much attention as the few that were selected for publication, I think.  Because scale – just sheer numbers – does seem to be one of the qualities of the visual images created by digital technologies.  Once you’ve got a camera, you can store as many photos as your hard drive or web albums have the space to hold, and the numbers of images thus archived can be huge, as Pawson’s collection attests.

And these collections of vast numbers of images pose some challenges to conventional ways of understanding the significance of images, I think.  Can we interpret them by subjecting them to the kind of close reading that is dominant still in visual culture studies?  Or do we need a different approach?  Do they demand a return by content analysis, for example, for long shunned by cultural studies scholars but perhaps a necessity in the face of a photo collection in the thousands?  I certainly found my own attitude towards content analysis changing as I went from writing the first edition of Visual Methodologies to the third.  In the first edition, I wrote a chapter on content analysis out of duty, really, just to widen the coverage of the book; but by the third edition, with books like the one written by Jean Burgess and Joshua Green about YouTube using content analysis to get to grips with just under 4,500 videos, I was beginning to think quantitative methods might be of some help.

Burgess and Green talk about YouTube being ‘a mediated cultural system’ with a ‘shared and particular common culture’, which are best identified by examining the overall shape, if you like, of YouTube’s online presence rather than by close readings of the videos themselves.  They give YouTube some shape by working with its own counting of its tags: most favourited, most commented and so on.  This suggests that once something like YouTube congeals into a certain form, the form is sustained and has significance.

But how best to approach the form of a personal collection of 230,000 photographs?

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