“All Our Yesterdays” Europeana and the Phenomenology of Photographic Experience through the Framing of Digitization

by Frederik Truyen

1. Introduction

EuropeanaPhotography is a CIP project aiming at ingesting more than 430.000 high-quality early photography images into Europeana. We are a team of 19 photo agencies, museums and archives; we will digitize masterpiece images from the first 100 years of Photography.

The consortium consists of both private and public-funded organizations, who have a common mission of the care for photo archives.

The Promotor is KU Leuven, Technical coordinator is Promoter srl.

In this talk we will discuss the project, as it was conceived and is unfolding as a typical Digital Humanities Project, but at the same time we will leave the strictly technical questions and dig somewhat deeper in the core humanities issues at hand, such as some reflections on the impact of digitization and IPR issues. We will talk about selection, digitization, metadata, preservation and dissemination, in particular the exhibition; which is meant both to be attractive to a broader public and to spread the Europeana message to the European citizens, and also a little bit thought-provoking through the radical unconventional way we display these vintage photographs.

We will also show a lot of photos and discuss the themes and concept of the exhibition “All our Yesterdays”.

To start with the project, while many of the issues in Digital Humanities now involve analytics and quantitative analysis of big data somewhat reminiscent of the “Humanities Computing” of the eighties, for us the “Humanities” approach always involves a relation to the individual object, the particularity, the uniqueness. This is why many Digital Humanities projects involve digitization.

It was clear early on that with such a mixed consortium,  we needed to develop and nurture shared and convergent views on content selection criteria, methodologies, workflow and best practices, IPR, dissemination and sustainability.

IPR is inextricably linked to photography, since the photo is an abstract, intellectual object. The issue of IPR has defined our project from the beginning.

As a typical CIP digitization project, we divided the work in a work package on digitization on indexing and multilingual support, on metadata transformation and ingestion, on IPR and sustainability and one dissemination. A specific work package for this project was the WP on themes and collections. In fact, the project gave us a unique opportunity, since it was a large scale digitization, we would delve into archival materials that were hitherto unexplored. This is an example of a context where institutions have an advantage over individual research to actually discover new relevant materials. We soon decided that at each project meeting we would be looking at pictures, to develop a common understanding about what early photography actually was, as it emerged from the archive collections. Now, in the partner constellations we had sought an equilibrium between low-risk, highly reputed collections that were well guarded by professional institutions such as TopFoto, Parisienne etc., and on the other hand new, smaller collections to be discovered, mostly in the “new Europe”, with a special mission for NALIS and ICIMSS to search for unknown treasures.

2. Selection

As you can see, the selection criteria were based on:

  • The chronology, where we tried to depict the history of photography and photographic techniques from 1839 to 1939
  • The historical, artistic or social relevance value of the work
  • And territorial criteria: the wider European continent (for clarity: including Britain), and images or photos that were important for European history (so also landmark pictures from the colonies are included)
  • And of course … the eye of the beholder: in the very first place, we looked for the best photo, under the motto ‘photography first’

In any case, we promised to look out for absolute masterpieces of photography.

3. Photographic Heritage as Memory

We are living what Jay Winter calls a “memory” boom in History studies, which is tightly linked to the renewed interest in Cultural Heritage, and accentuated by the 14-18 Great War commemorations. As indicated by many critics and scholars, this brings along a lot of nostalgic, nationalistic and more broadly euphemistic visions of history, where often the narrative adapts to the values of today, and the messages often are echoes from today’s preoccupations rather than testimonies from the past.

Aleida Assman made a very interesting study in kinds of  memory that come in to play in history and cultural heritage. She promotes a kind of ‘cultural memory’ as an ultimate stage of how the past lives on, when the dynamics of politics and the recuperation by national agendas has gradually faded away.

On the other side, current cultural practices are putting a lot of pressure on historical remembrance practices. More specifically, the world of photography is coming under strain from social media explosions where thousands of people became photographers of their own lives, whether it be through the smartphone, Facebook and Instagram or with more sophisticated gadgets such as Mini-drones, GoPro helmets or dashcams.

The ‘selfie’ is everywhere, and the endless remix-culture makes sure that you absolutely cannot know whether the picture of Mona Lisa, to give an example, is still true to the original or has been tampered with in a multitude of ways.

In the digital image, there is no ‘original’ to be traced, since the ‘raw camera’ image isn’t really a participant in the social media sphere. Yes there is digital curation, but the ‘memory’ aspect of it, in the eternally presential internet is completely ephemeral.

This world contrasts with the safe environment of libraries and archives, whose main task it is to preserve and warrant the causal link between a material document and the past. Archives are pressed to ‘become useful’ by ‘opening up their content to the public’, through projects like the Google Library or Europeana. One should realize that when archives actually open up their content to the public, dramatic changes in their mission take place which have a huge impact on their workings.

To give only a few examples: portions of the documents contained in archives contain hate discourse, show abuses or use a terminology that is simply socially unacceptable in current times. Suppose that we, in the context of EuropeanaPhotography, when we are digitizing highlight photographs, stumble on photos in an otherwise unsuspicious collection, of unspeakable nature. Are we then going to omit these pictures from the public display? In many cases, I guess we legally have no other option. Archives that put materials online become publishers and should comply with the law on what they have to tell. The same holds for the metadata. Suppose a collection of beautiful pictures in the Colonial era contains to our standards bluntly racist descriptions. Are we going to polish up the original metadata?

The problem is, that for a researcher who uses this database as a surrogate for accessing the original – maybe because the archive simply doesn’t want their precious originals to pass through too many hands and imposes “digital view only”, this becomes a major issue: he is no longer certain of the completeness of the collection or the correctness of the descriptions. The archive then, is add odds with its core values.

EuropeanaPhotography decided on a policy to mark in the metadata when the original metadata was changed; we also decided to select collections that were well within acceptable norms to avoid having to leave out part of the material.

4. Digitization

Next to the selection process, there is the digitization. Of course, The EP consortium set out in an early stage common standards and best practices for digitization. Those were published in so-called fact-sheets, available on the project website. It has to do within the kind of equipment used (camera vs. scanner), the resolution (up to 100 Megapixel), the lighting etc. It also has to do of course with post-processing: removing dust, correcting the light balance and the dynamic range of the image, and a discussion to what extent some aesthetic corrections would be acceptable, since there is of course a huge divide between the practices at photo agencies who provide images to magazines and archives who primarily serve researchers.

No strict policy was imposed, but then again we always went for photographic quality in the selection, so very badly damaged images, even if they would have been of prime historical value, didn’t qualify.

The main point to remember that where possible, we start from the glass negative, and not from  the original print. This alone is a very important issue, since for a historian and an archivist, there are many reasons to prefer the first print over the negative, while from an ICT point of view, the negative is a logical choice.

Digitization of images – a serialization in computer science terminology, converts the information stored in the analog original into digital data, from which we can restore that information in any bearer. It is very important to build awareness about what is happening here. First of all, the uniqueness of the object is gone, and we enter, with the words of Walter Benjamin, the era of ‘mechanical reproduction’. Secondly, the object is reduced to being information, which we can render in several ways. It immediately creates intermediality.

5. Reframing

Of course we could use this digital file to try to produce a facsimile of the original object, staying as true as possible to the original bearer’s properties, but this is not what happens. Image reproductions end up on Europeana and hence on the wider internet, or in exhibitions like EuropeanaPhotography, where we decided to print on high-quality, white cotton  paper with full dynamic range at sizes up to 80x 90 cm.

A lot happens to the image and to the experience of the image when you do that. First of all there is the deframing: an image can be presented in different cutouts, and the larger scale also gives another frame for the viewer. The photo “Lovers lane” by John Topham clearly illustrates this point. The large-size picture we show in the exhibition really gives another experience than when you look down at it in a 8*9 cm print.

Second, there is total decontextualisation. It’s not like a photo in an album. This is in particular something to discuss in our exhibition, where we selected images on the basis of subthemes, regardless of the used technique and specific timeframe of the image.

It is our view that this reframing, which is inherent to the digital world, is not a problem as such but can be an issue when it is not understood or when there is no awareness what is happening.

On the other side, the reframing liberates the image from its capture by the author and the original framing it got chained into. It also forms an opportunity to free the image from the nostalgic, false historicist reframing that often occurs when photography is considered to be ‘vintage’, and suddenly all old photographs are deemed to need a sepia print look.

The digitized photo conveys a new immediate experience, which somehow related very accurately to the original photo (not the original experience) since current techniques allow us to reconstitute very precisely, from the information in the photo, what the light conditions were. (Exception: if there is no colour information we cannot restore this).

This is often supplanted by a surrogate nostalgic ‘historical’ experience when confronted with an original, vintage print. By rendering the light information from the negative, we create a contemporary image experience. A tangible past experience, not an experience of the past. Anyway, it was one of our goals in the “All our Yesterdays” exhibition to re-create the experience of seeing the image through the lens.

Many things happen when you move from 5×4 inch contact albumen print to 50×40 based on 100Mpixel digitization of a glass plate original. It de-frames and re-formats the image and its experience. It is ‘untrue’ and ‘inauthentic’ yet accurate and causally linked to the original image.

This brings us to a discussion about what the photo actually is. It is important to understand that strictly speaking there is never an original. A photo is always a representation. The digital object created by digitization allows us to create new representations, but of what? In a photo, we can discern the original photographic experience (the image seen through the lens), the captured light, the negative, its frame, the positive and the print copy. The original print can be reproduced in multiple ways. In the case of digitization, whether it starts from a negative or a print, there is also a new object, the digital master. In each of the reproduction activities a different scaling or cut-out can occur. From the digital master digital copies can be made, eventually leading to new displays or reprints. 

As always, the digitization should be understood as a remediation. The new digital form that the image obtains allows for yet-to-be-defined new usage contexts, that in the end lead to new cultural practices.

Different partners in EuropeanaPhotography hold copies of the same image, sometimes negative, sometimes print. In our project we tried to start from the negative when available, whilst of course one could argue that the original print made by the photographer could be considered his ‘photo’.

6. Information

When we start from the negative, we process the information that is in the digital capture – we use cameras such as Phase one, Leaf or Hasselblad and post-process in many cases with capture one software. This allows us to recover the optimum light information in the original image, to a very high level of fidelity.

Instead of linear rendering we produce enhanced images,  that fully exploit the available dynamic range. This produces an image as it has never been seen before, not even by the original photographer. In a way, we disclose what is in the photo. It is like current technology that enhances photos from mass gatherings in such a way that you start recognizing individuals in the crowd. In our case it reveals a level of detail and contrast that was unachievable in the vintage print, which fundamentally alters the viewer experience.

Of course, experiments are possible where you try to make new usages of these kind of digital master images, e.g. to produce re-colored image such as in the Farbenfrooh project of United Archives. Again, the nostalgic experience is substituted for a more eerie, alienating twist of photographic reality. We must note however that since no color information is available in the original, there are no possibilities to determine scientifically what the original colors should be; this is not retrievable from the greyscales, so it is sheer interpretation.

7. Outcomes of the project

The EuropeanaPhotography project has different outcomes. First of all there is the collection of images accessible through Europeana. Second, there is the travelling exhibition “All our Yesterdays”, which can be hired in different formats. It also contains a virtual exhibition.

Aside of this,  the EuropeanaPhotography project partners have formed the Photography Consortium, which offers: digitization and metadata best practices (available as factsheets on the website), a multilingual vocabulary on early photography, an adapted MINT mapping tool to convert metadata to the Europeana EDM using a LIDO intermediate format and an IPR guidebook.

The multilingual thesaurus contains over 500 concepts related to photography structured in a multifaceted, hierarchical way in 13 languages: Bulgarian, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, and is published as skossified linked data at the URL http://bib.arts.kuleuven.be/photoVocabulary

MINT is a user-friendly platform for transforming existing metadata and enriching metadata using the EuropeanaPhotography Multilingual Vocabulary. It allows users to map their metadata schemas to reference domain models (LIDO to EDM). It follows a typical web based architecture and was developed for ATHENA. It is currently used for EUScreen, CARARE, Judaica, ECLAP, DCA, Linked Heritage and other Europeana Aggregation projects, and has been customized for EuropeanaPhotography.

8. IPR

Europeana launched a Rights Labeling campaign to make sure that items found on Europeana have a clear rights status. The labels have been developed in collaboration with Creative Commons. Specifically, a public domain mark has been added to indicate that a work is in the public domain.

This is different from the CC0 license; since in the case of the PDM, the work being in the public domain there is no one to claim the copyrights, hence it would make no sense that someone “dedicates” the work. CC0 on the other hand is a classic dedication: the rights holder decides to transfer his rights to the public.

There was very high resentment in the EP consortium towards this notion, as many commercial providers live from licensing their images, including those that technically are in the public domain. Quite simply, it is the only way to be in the image business. But also part of the public funded institutions were not happy with the PDM, because they are legally obliged to recuperate part of their subsidies through the revenue from licensing, in most case licensing high resolution prints.

These remarks have been elaborated in the IPR guidelines we published on the project website.

Another issue is that these labels are inspired by the US legislation, which is in many ways different from the European (hereby we mean the different national legislations in Europe).

1. Both adhere to the Berne convention (WIPO Treaty), but most European national laws do not have a fair use provision, only very specific “fair dealings”. In Belgium e.g. Educational use of copyrighted work is compensated by a tax on photocopies made at educational institutions and library premises.

2. European Union countries have a law that protects databases, so “access” doesn’t mean license to download.

3. The US lacks the moral rights provisions that most European countries have. Author rights are inalienable in most European national laws. The fact that US law captures most relevant issues under the umbrella “copyright law” leads to a copyright fixation that is alien to the European notion of rights that start from the individual creator’s author and moral rights.

The biggest issue however resides with Orphan Works, i.e. works with no known or traceable author. Many archives hold such works, and are legally not in the position to publish them, which conflicts with their mission to make such works accessible to the public, for which digitization is the prime candidate.  Orphan Works legislation is under review in the US, the European Orphan Works directive (http://ec.europa.eu/internal_market/copyright/orphan_works/index_en.htm) however doesn’t offer protection: the directive doesn’t apply to individual photos, only those that are part of published albums or books, and the directive isn’t implemented in national legislation yet. This means that when we publish Orphan Works on Europeana, we actually do not have the right to do so, whatever label we put on it. In some European countries, such as Denmark, collecting societies can collect money in the name of the unknown authors of Orphan Works. This exposes the contributors to Europeana to a risk, since it is on their site that the images are published, not on the Eurpeana’s site.

For ICT automation and interoperability, rights labeling is a logical tendency. However: rights belong to people, not objects, the labeling doesn’t preclude taking it to the courts. In fact, the label adds nothing to the right status of the work; it can only be used by someone in an affirmative defense based on fair use (at least in the US, not in Europe). In the US, Fair use is a positive right that can be used in an affirmative defense.

More fundamentally, we should be wary of platforms such as Europeana imposing a labeling on content providers, and by doing so shaping an interpretation of rights that in fact belong to court jurisprudence. One should note that in the US the interpretation of fair use is evolving gradually to be more centered on the notion of transformative use, where sufficient alteration of the work can lead to the assessment that it is genuinely a new work. This favours very much the reuse/remix culture to which Europeana declares itself, by expressing the wish to evolve to a platform to support creative industries. We still have to see whether the legal system in Europe is favorable to these developments. We, as EP consortium, have serious doubts whether genuinely creative new products can be made with unlicensed photographic content that really adds value. Using an historical image as a fuzzy background in a shooter game doesn’t seem to us a valid added value, both morally and economically.

Important to note is also that not in all European legal systems a work automatically enters the public domain after 70 years after the death of the author . In Italy, e.g. the law protects valuable works of art, including major photo collections, from this rule. In a sense Italy wants to protect the cultural and moral integrity of the works. Hence the law case against a company that used a photo of Michelangelo’s David with an assault rifle in his hands.


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