What is it?

January 4, 2007

This is The Pragmatic Librarian’s wife Diane piping in here.  My husband recently blogged an excellent summary of our Critters, Culture, and Kuche day, during which we saw End of Time, an exhibition of photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto, at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. As an information science/image retrieval researcher and photography enthusiast, I want to write some more about Sugimoto’s photography. The “Seascapes” portion of the exhibition resonated in me the most.  In reference to his “Seascapes” work, I found this quote from Sugimoto online, and I think the Modern also posted it at the exhibition: 

One New York night in 1980, during another of my internal question-and-answer sessions, I asked myself, “Can someone today view a scene just as primitive man might have?” The images that came to mind were of Mount Fuji and the Nachi Waterfall in ages past. A hundred thousand or a million years ago would
Mount Fuji have looked so very different than it does today? I pictured two great mountains; one, today’s Mount Fuji, and the other, Mount Hakone in the days before its summit collapsed, creating the Ashinoko crater lake. When hiking up from the foothills of Hakone, one would see a second freestanding peak as tall as
Mount Fuji. Two rivals in height—what a magnificent sight that must have been! Unfortunately, the topography has changed. Although the land is forever changing its form, the sea, I thought, is immutable. Thus began my travels back through time to the ancient seas of the world.

(from http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/sugimoto/seascapes/index.htm)

If you click the “Next” link at the bottom of that page, you can see examples of the works included in this collection. These photos affirm his statement that the sea is immutable: both intra-immutable and inter-immutable, if I can use that much poetic license.  If all these photos were shot with the same environmental conditions and the same camera settings, they would all appear to be the same sea, regardless of whether he shot the photo in 1980 A.D. or 1980 B.C.  At the very least, perhaps one could say they are “one but not the same,” to corrupt the words of U2. Using Sugimoto’s perspective of the sea, our humanity-created political/geographic boundaries seem trite, and my personal experience with the sea affirms this view.  During the very few days I have ever spent on a beach, I have lost track of time while gazing out toward the horizon, pondering the everything-ness and nothing-ness before me.  I have never felt more at peace in my life than during those precious times.   

But, this is a library and information science-related blog, and as a guest writer, I should attempt to stay on track.  Here are the LIS-related questions I have considered with respect to these photos: 

Cataloging and indexing:  
What is important to index?  You cannot tell the Caribbean Sea from the

North Pacific Ocean, and this transparency was intentional.  It is interesting to see where the photos were shot, and it contributes to their artistic value, but is the location important for information retrieval purposes?  Not to be sarcastic, but is there a Library of Congress Subject Heading for immutability?  If these photos were on Flickr, and somebody tagged the picture of the Caribbean Sea with “North Pacific Ocean”, would it be wrong on a philosophical level?

Would the photo at http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/sugimoto/seascapes/photo5.htm satisfy a patron’s need for a picture of the
Aegean Sea?  Or would it depend? 

Image retrieval system design:
How would people want to search for pictures like these?  If they saw the picture at http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/sugimoto/seascapes/photo5.htm, and they clicked on a “show me more pictures like this” button, would they expect to see the rest of the Seascapes collection, or more concrete photos of the
Aegean Sea?  (Probably, the right answer is “it depends”…)

While I was interviewing photojournalists as part of my dissertation research, one photojournalist made it very clear to me that he did not become a photographer to make art, but rather to document history.  As a common understanding, we could say that Sugimoto is an artist, because he distorts representations to create an effect, and his work is displayed at museums around the world.  But, what did Sugimoto do in his Seascapes collection?  Did he make art?  Did he document history?  I think he did both. 


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