Context Without Content, and Vice Versa

September 13, 2016
Michelle Paquette
An assortment of photos from the Kojima family papers

A few weekends ago I went to the relatively-newly reopened SFMOMA. Their exhibition "About Time: Photography in a Moment of Change" features artist Jason Lazarus' installation Recordings #3 (At sea), 2014-2016. It's a wall of found photographs hung so that the actual photograph faces the wall, with only the text written on the back of the photo visible to the viewer.

In a way, it struck me as being kind of like the opposite of the material I work with in special collections. With Lazarus' installation you have a case of context without the content. You might know the photo is of "Gary," or from "March 1957," or something more substantial like "And this was taken as we were coming down the Rabbit Ear. See the hole in Hope's sock and the sun was so bright she is scowling like everything," but the actual image is a mystery, and you can imagine whatever you want to fit that context. No two people will imagine the same image on the other side of that photo.

With special collections material, we often have the content without the context. While we have the actual photograph, we can often only imagine what exactly the subjects were doing or feeling, or what their relationships were to each other. Here are a few examples from some of the collections made available this year:

Page from Kojima family papers photo album

From Mss Photo 0522 - Chizu Kumano photograph albums, 1930s-1970s

An assortment of photos from the Kojima family papers

M2117 - Kojima family papers, circa 1939-1960

An assortment of photos from the Helen G. Sullivan papers

M2149 - Helen G. Sullivan papers, 1945-1952

A photo from the Jesse Fowler Smith papers

M2133 - Jesse Fowler Smith papers, circa 1903-1956

Of course, in these cases we know something about the creators and the situations in which these photographs were taken, but without captions written on the back or below the photo in the album, we'll never know the exact way that the photographer or album compiler would have described it in their own words. Part of the fun of working with rare materials for me is the mystery of it, and the fun of piecing together the story from the material at hand. If you want to learn more about the context behind these photographs, I encourage you to check out the collections featured here.