IN barely 100 years, photography has gone from a magical, even mystical process, to an afterthought. Nothing better captures how much of an afterthought photography is today than the banal miracle that is Flickr, the photo-sharing site owned by Yahoo that has more than three billion photographs online. Billion.
"Flickr is to photography what the Pacific Ocean is to water, what Times Square is to humanity," the cultural critic Luc Sante wrote in an essay for the January-February 2008 issue of Photograph magazine. "Flickr is a great leveler, sweeping away distinctions between amateurism and expertise, art and record-keeping."
Against this backdrop, there are the relics from the earlier age of photography, historical photographs that have been preserved in national libraries and archives or photo agencies and news media operations. Their relative scarcity alone can make them seem like treasures.
They, too, are finding their way onto the Internet. Compared with the stream of photographs being uploaded (an estimated three million a day on Flickr alone), the historical material can seem a mere trickle. Yet over the last year there have been important new efforts to put these classics online, both to find new audiences for material typically used by researchers and to use those audiences to breathe new meaning into photographs from long ago.
Last month, in what is believed to be the largest donation online of "free" photographs - that is, unrestricted for commercial or noncommercial use - the German national archive uploaded nearly 100,000 historical photographs to the Wikimedia Commons, the virtual archive for material used in Wikipedia articles.
Wikipedia articles include only photographs that have been licensed in the freest way, and there must be a stipulation that the copyright holder either agrees to such terms or that no one holds a copyright. It is for this reason that articles on Wikipedia for famous people like, say, the basketball great Julius Erving, frequently have no photograph.
And another basketball star, George Gervin, is illustrated by an oddly shaped photograph that, as a note explains, originally showed Mr. Gervin posing with Senator John Cornyn of Texas. Mr. Cornyn has been cropped out, but since it was found on his official site, it is in the public domain. Harsh.
The photographs donated by the German archive have a lower resolution than what you would see in print (those still cost money), but are fine for online use. These lower-resolution photographs have been available at the archive site, although watermarked and with rules against commercial use (an unreasonable restriction by Wikipedia terms). The archive agreed to change, recognizing that the number of people who visit Wikipedia so dwarfs its own online visitor traffic.
As would be expected from a trove of 100,000 photographs, there are the bizarrely mundane and the breathtaking: in 1984, transporting lumber in Bad Berka in Thuringia, Germany; in 1919, a family of 11 living in poverty in a single room, photographer unknown. The archive's motives were not entirely selfless; it hopes to harness the Wikipedia editors to improve the cataloging of the photographs, said Oliver Sander, who is responsible for the collection at the archive.
There are 58,000 people in these photographs who lack an ID number assigned by the German library, and the archive would like Wikipedia editors to help identify who is in these photographs and add these codes. "Unfortunately, we don't have the capacity to implement this with our list of people," Dr. Sander said. "Maybe Wikipedia members could add this ID to our list. That was the first benefit from Wikipedia." Thus far, 29,000 photographs of people have been so coded, Dr. Sander said.
In a similar move to harness the public's knowledge about old photographs, the Library of Congress a year ago began adding photographs with no known restrictions to a Flickr service called the Commons. The Library of Congress started with 3,500 photos and adds 50 a week.
The project relies on Flickr's ability to allow users to leave comments, below the picture or even within the picture to fill in the blanks. In a report assessing the project (conclusion: it has been a huge success) the library detailed the information that had been gleaned from Flickr users.
There are tiny signs whose texts have been discerned; a photographer's logo, Byron of New York, "which provided a fundamental new piece of information and connections to many related photos"; a photograph that originally was described as showing "industrial buildings and a town in Mass., possibly Brockton," now has been identified as being a shoe factory, indeed in Brockton. Flickr is choosing to move slowly in its commons, which it doesn't see "as a revenue driver," said Kakul Srivastava, general manager of Flickr.
"It depends on what your goals are - if your goal is to get as many photographs up there as possible; uploading photographs is not a technical issue whatsoever," she said. "Instead, it is about being able to share these photos in more manageable chunks and take the time to absorb the content, to discuss it."