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Photomuse.org: Soon to be the largest collecion of noted photographs online

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by Maria Lewis

The Internet has ushered in many changes in recent years, expanding the way we communicate and share information. Communities across the globe have altered, evolved, or have been created in an altogether new form. The Arts Community is not the least of these, and it is still adapting to our changing culture.

The latest development in the world of art online is Photomuse.org, the ambitious collaboration between the George Eastman House and New York’s Centre for Photography. The site, which plans to host over 200,000 noted photographs, will be the largest collection of its kind online. Even more notably, it will be totally free to the public.

The site itself is currently in a prototype phase, trying out different formats and features to see what works best. Navigation is a little convoluted, and the links function sporadically. You have to go through about three pages before you can actually access the photographs, and even then it’s not always clear where you are being led.

Fortunately, there is also a viewer comments section, where users can leave tips and requests about what they would like to see from the site, and how it can better display its images. Technical issues aside, the collection is already striking. The site has reportedly received so much traffic in its brief existence that it has overloaded its server.

To date, there are 23 artists listed on the site, with many more to come. And while the navigation currently leaves something to be desired, once you dive into the collection the results are captivating. Far from the fuzzy, pixilated, and watermarked scans common to most image libraries, the images on Photomuse are crisp and clear.

A sample image by Alfred Stieglitz measured approximately 300 x 400 pixels. This admittedly isn’t large, but it holds up well and there are no watermarks obscuring the photo. While an image like this that wouldn’t be fit to print out and hang on your wall, it would be ideal to use in a report, a PowerPoint presentation or a website.

James Hugunin, an Adjunct Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has already made use of the Photomuse site. “The project is extremely helpful to my teaching of photo history,” he states, “During class, I can go into the site and discuss the work therein… The project can expose more people to photographic art.”
However, and perhaps not surprisingly, the project’s progress has been hindered by issues of copyright and intellectual property. The arts, in particular, have felt the impact of a changing online community, for better and for worse. The Internet has been a vehicle for many emerging artists to gain exposure, as well as a space of their own. But it has also been a rough road for those who are trying to maintain a certain control over how and where their work is used, particularly for artists who make a living from the sale of pieces or prints.

Photomuse seems to have come to a compromise, albeit and uneasy one. The images are too small for commercial use, although the intent of the site necessitates that they be large and clear enough for educational purposes. However, it is possible for users to save the images onto their own computers. This makes sense from an educational perspective but still raises a number of questions about protecting the rights of the artist.

That is why the project has such enormous cultural and historical significance. In an age of free information and file sharing, the arts community has been most reluctant to relinquish its claim to intellectual and artistic property. Photomuse represents a new step, one in which art is as readily accessible and shareable as any other information. The concerns about the impact this might have on individual artists are certainly valid. But there is also the hope that Photomuse, and projects like it, will help bring art into the consciousness and daily lives of the public. On a larger scale, it could build support and interest in the arts by making them accessible to everyone.

The effect it might have, either positive or negative, remains to be seen. Hugunin feels that, potentially, it could go either way. “[The project] has its positive aspects…but it can also fuel our contemporary image glut. New technologies are always a two-edged sword.”

But Hugunin has hopes for the future of the project. “I applaud the increasing access to art collections, making teaching and research easier to accomplish,” he says. “I would like to see the website open to individuals to curate online shows, drawing from the institutions’ archives in doing so.”

There seem to be many hopes and dreams for the Photomuse project. In the end, what it becomes and the effect it has on the arts community will depend on the public that shapes it. That, at least, is one of the wonderful things about evolving communities: there is always the potential, and the hope, of growing into something bigger, stronger, and ultimately more fascinating.

September 2005

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