5.4.2 Description

February 10, 2021 - 1:56pm by Anonymous (not verified)

The level and form of description for photographs depends on the overall research significance of the collection, the photographic formats present, and the arrangement of photographs within a separate series or in conjunction with other material. 

At the collection and series level, the description should capture the general characteristics of the photographic material. These descriptions are usually sufficient for small or interrelated groups of photographs. Diverse or large collections and series of photographs may require more extensive description of subcomponents, depending on image content, photographic format, and context.

If a variety of photographic formats occur in a collection or series, a description may highlight them. For example: “This series includes photographs in several formats, including black-and-white prints and film negatives.”

In most cases, file-level description of photographs will be sufficient to facilitate research. Files of snapshots, family portraits, photograph albums, etc., may be described broadly within the context of their arrangement, without specific mention of formats or extent. 

Item-level description of photographs should be reserved for material with high research value. Even when items are listed individually in the finding aid, there is a range of descriptive detail that may be provided or not, depending on the nature of the material. For instance, a series of portrait photographs may be described at the item level with only the name of each subject, but descriptions in a series of daguerreotypes or art photographs may also include detailed physical descriptions and other information such as image content summaries or edition numbers.

In some cases, particularly where early photographic processes are present, the format of the photographs may be as interesting to researchers as the image content. Formats traditionally described with a high level of detail include early photographic processes, such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes (often in their original individual cases, which may also merit description), as well as glass plate negatives, lantern slides, stereographs, transparencies, and slides (usually 35mm positive transparencies on film in a mount of 2 by 2 inches). Additionally, for photographs for which security is a concern, noting the format can be important in helping to identify particular items.

Item-level description of photographs is carried out for:

  • Early photographic processes (e.g. images on metal or glass, salted paper prints)
  • Stereographs (these commercially-published items are often searched individually)
  • Art photographs (e.g. physical aspects of item are part of its value)
  • Work of prominent photographers
  • Rare formats (e.g. photographs on unusual media such as leather or ivory)
  • Rare subjects (e.g. the only or earliest image of prominent person, the only known documentation of particular event)

Collections or series that will be scanned in their entirety for the Digital Library may require item-level description to facilitate that process; consult with your supervisor and the Head of Digital Services to determine whether this work is best carried out by the Manuscript Unit or the catalogers in the digital studio.