The Last Slide Show
In October 2004, Eastman Kodak announced that it had produced its last slide projector. The news gave quite a jolt to many teachers of design history who had not already converted their slide collections to a digital format. The 35mm slide is destined to become a technological relic—just like the magic lantern slide or the floppy disc—and the traditional slide library is being replaced by dislocated virtual image collections.
Slide libraries tend to fall somewhere between the purviews of libraries and individual departments. There are no standard methods of classification or acquisition and, hence, they vary greatly in the quality of their content, their organization, and so on. With a dedicated visual-resources curator at its helm, a slide library can be a rich resource for teachers and students alike. More usually it is a strange repository of the idiosyncratic whims of generations of teachers who’ve passed through its doors. While these eccentricities are often endearing—a whole cabinet devoted to punk graphics or a particularly bizarre and complex cataloguing system inherited from a previous era, for example—they can also be problematic.
Apart from gaping holes in a collection, another more insidious problem is the tendency for slides to be organized by designer and design movement, which encourages time-pressed lecturers to teach accordingly.
The advantages of digital images are obvious: since digital files can be duplicated so easily it’s simpler to reuse images in different lectures; you can store complete lectures as documents, which take up much less room than stacks of carousels; and because a computer database is much more flexible than a card index system in a slide library and allows non-linear searching and retrieval, there’s the potential for far greater amounts of cross-referencing across disciplines and periods and for the inclusion of more contextual material. Digital images also allow for more fluid display than slides. Providing you have access to the software, you can pan across or zoom into an image to highlight a detail, and, instead of being limited to single or side-by-side presentation format, you can display images in multiples, to create a collage effect enabling more subtle visual analysis. With the integration of motion and sound you can include video clips and even replicate the experience of reading a book, for example. With digital images, therefore, there’s the potential for better quality design history teaching. And yet, the celebrations you would expect are far from universal.
Christine Sundt is a visual resources curator at the University of Oregon and one of the best-respected slide librarians in the US. While excited about the benefits of the “simple and elegant, highly transportable and accurate, versatile” digital format, she points out a number of caveats. “How long will digital files last?” she asks.
Can we be certain that a 2004 digital format such as a TIFF or a JPEG will be as readable in 2050 as a Kodachrome slide shot in 1940 is today?
Can we justify the considerable expense of conversion and its necessary quality control, the accurate labeling of images, the specialized presentation software necessary to reap the rewards of the digital format, the subscriptions to the various images banks, the database management systems that facilitates keyword and subject access, and the new projection equipment and its maintenance? (A lecturer can fix the majority of problems with an analogue slide projector, but a technician is required for a digital projector.) Another major problem that design educator Lorraine Wild identifies is the low resolution of video projection. “I’m afraid we are educating a generation of students who simply will not know what sharp type looks like,” she says.
Wild teaches what she terms “a complicated syllabus that cross-references graphic design with other design practices” at CalArts, and is currently in the process of transferring her enormous but aging collection of slides to digital. Currently, to put any lecture together using a slide library, Wild has to look in “Graphic Design, Poster Design, Book Arts, Print Graphics, 19th-Century Architecture, 20th-Century Architecture, as well as Interiors, Furniture, Fabric, Glass, Metal, and Wood.” It’s a complex process and one she feels will be simplified by a digital picture database. Her transfer process is not running completely smoothly, however: “When I went to scan the slides I discovered that the image quality was not good enough to survive scanning to a size that could be projected.” The alternative is to find the originals and re-shoot them but, in Wild’s experience, that can be tough. “For instance, my slide of the cover of Herbert Bayer’s Bauhaus exhibition catalogue of 1923 was shot from an original in the Yale Art and Architecture library, but my scan is now a scan of a reproduction in a recent Bauhaus book. It’s ok, but not quite the same.”
Design education guru Meredith Davis knows a lot about slide libraries. As a member of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design Commission on Accreditation, each year she visits many schools in addition to reading 280 visitation reports. “Visual resource collections are all over the map,” says Davis. “There are very sophisticated setups, such the one at Oregon University or the Art Institute of Chicago, directed by someone who really understands classification systems, is knowledgeable about copyright issues, looks to the variety of faculty use, and who looks at what’s available outside to add to the collection. On the flipside you have entirely idiosyncratic collections, often based in a closet, and run by someone who has no idea of what the issues are in terms of copyright or access, no training at all, and using a weirdly structured system.”
As educational institutions of both stripes join the scramble to digitize, Davis believes that the big issue has to do with the provenance of images. “Teachers and librarians have a tendency to go to books for images so the same few get recycled. Very few graphic design history books have resulted from real work in archives and unlike architecture and art, graphic design does not have companies making slide sets from archives. So faculty tends to use homemade slides—most usually copied from Meggs—and that governs what they teach. They’re not serious historians, and have never seen most of these objects in real life.”
Chair of graphic design at NCSU, Denise Gonzales Crisp—a self-described “digital gal”—is happily conversant with the benefits of digital presentation (apart from the “lack of adequate software,” however, which she says, “assumes you know where you’re going, and doesn’t allow for lateral thinking”). While slides, both through their format and the cataloging system that guides their use, favor “iconic examples of work and classic views of objects or places,” says Gonzales Crisp, digital images allow for more complexity and subtlety.
Do certain types of graphic design work better on slide than others? Davis believes so. “Monolithic identities by Rand and Vignelli and projects that can be captured by a style manual are what tend to be covered by slide collections,” she says. Examples of a more contemporary, organic approach to corporate identity, on the other hand, are much harder to capture in this medium, because there are often multiple designers involved, less rules, and huge amounts of applications to be assembled.
“We are all involved in moving forward to the next phase of teaching and digital technology plays a big role in it,” says Sundt, but, she warns, digital hasn’t yet been proven to be the best solution. “Many schools could not afford to have a fulltime slide curator, and yet they have the idea that they can have a fully fledged digital collection as if it manages itself.” Without adequate financial support and commitment to infrastructure, institutions might be better off sticking with slides, or a combination of the two.
At Oregon, Sundt says, faculty are happy to continue using the visual resources collection of 300,000 slides thanks to a database she developed to help them work with it, and to the fact that low-res digital images accessed by password are available as study aids for students. “Going digital actually puts more burden on faculty,” Sundt points out and Wild will attest. “They have to invent their own classification system with a robust dataset for each image (a file name is not enough; there are so many reasons to show a slide,) and store huge amounts of data on their computers.”
The transition from 35 mm slides to digital files is inevitable and at many institutions it is already in process. The benefits of the switch are numerous, but it is important that universities tread carefully and invest sufficiently in the expertise and resources necessary to ensure not only that we don’t replicate the negative aspects of the slide library in a virtual environment, but also that we don’t add any more. We would do well to heed the warning of Nicholson Baker who described the overly cavalier changeover from card to online catalogs that took place in libraries in the 1980s as a “national paroxysm of short-sightedness.”
References: CAA News, Newsletter of the College Art Association, Volume 9, Number 5, September 2004