Reviewed June 2016
Leslie Vega, Reference and Instruction Librarian
University of Tampa
The NYPL’s Photographers' Identities Catalog (PIC) is an online resource that provides basic biographical and other information for more than 115,000 photographers, dealers, and studios spanning from the earliest days of photography to the present day. The site uses a unique geospatial interface to deliver the data, and the catalog is constantly updating. PIC sources data from a mix of books, databases, and websites, as well as some original research. Because uniformity is essential for discoverability and sharing data, PIC is invaluable for its compilation of reliable print and digital sources and because it is backed by knowledgeable staff who can change or update the data at any point.
PIC is the culmination of the scholarly efforts of David Lowe, the Photography Specialist at the New York Public Library. Before his position at NYPL, Lowe discovered the potential loss of a huge amount of bibliographic data from an old George Eastman House (now the Eastman Museum) DOS database, and diligently collected, sorted, and cleaned up the data to form a usable set. David Lowe and the NYPL Photography Collection staff used this metadata to develop a more accurate and comprehensive catalog that burgeoned into the Photographers’ Identities Catalog. PIC only includes photographers whose work is shown in museums, libraries, historical societies, and archives, which is fair given the pervasive nature of photographs and amateur photographers in the digital age.
When first launching PIC, the user is taken to a shadow map peppered with thousands of glowing dots representing biographical and commercial data of photographers and photography businesses. The facets on the left side include the search box and standard filters such as location, nationality, and sources the information was taken from. The middle column includes all of the photographers’ names in alphabetical order. When clicking on a name, there is an information tab that gives the photography type used, the source of the biographical info (such as the Photographer’s Association of America directory or ULAN), and a location tab that triggers map lines between the birth, active in, and death locations. Some photographers’ biographical maps are so complex they resemble flights out of a major airport. It’s exciting to be able to see all of the connections, and the map design is uncluttered and lovely to look at.
PIC currently has a few issues, as would be expected from a continually updating interface. The site addresses some of the major problems most people will encounter in the FAQs. For one, PIC uses what the FAQ calls a “fuzzy search,” so if a user searches for “Mary” he will also get “Marc” (also Marx, Gary, and Bark). The site’s explanation is that “having too many results is the better problem to have.” Ultimately, PIC’s search capabilities functions better for well-known names. Searches for lesser-known photographers can be tricky. The major issue is not being able to click any of the glowing points on the map. While this issue is addressed in the FAQs, the added functionality could improve ease of use.
Open source data sharing is a primary objective of NYPL Labs, and PIC delivers on this end. Developers have the opportunity to download PIC’s raw data through GitHub. Contributors can request edits or additions; a key collaborative feature that distinguishes it from print reference sources and strengthens the currency and validity of the resource. PIC hopes to become an essential go-to authority file and research hub for librarians, historians, archivists, and curators. Overall, PIC is an excellent resource and a solid contribution to the inventive and growing efforts of NYPL Labs.