Save the data: New York Public Library launches online biographical archive for photographers

Started by one man based on a now defunct database, the Photographers’ Identities Catalogue could one day become a community-driven wiki

The New York Public Library (NYPL) has launched an online biographical database that features more than 115,000 profiles of photographers, studios, manufacturers, dealers and other notable names in the history of photography.

David Lowe, the founder and editor of the Photographers’ Identities Catalog (PIC), initially began collecting the information from a database that was maintained by the George Eastman House, now known as the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. “That database was important to my work, but it became clear that it was unstable, and I was unsure whether it would continue to be available”, Lowe told The Art Newspaper. “Though there are differences between them, it was the conceptual model for my project: a vast directory organised by name and including dates, places and periods of activity, and other identifying details.”

Eastman House’s database did eventually crash and Lowe, fearing that other similar platforms would have the same fate, began adding to the index he had saved using other sources, such as Getty’s Union List of Artist Names (ULAN) and Wikidata.

Each profile on the PIC database includes the person’s name, gender, birthplace and other relevant locations relating to their work. Some profiles also have the photographer’s preferred photo process and format, and all the known collections that house their work. By disclosing the sources of the information contained in the database, the PIC team hopes to encourage a Wikipedia-style platform where users can verify the provided data and submit supplemental information through a feedback form.

“For the immediate future, I will have to remain the gatekeeper for the database because we can’t let anyone outside of the NYPL make direct changes”, Lowe says. “This is something we’ll have to address for PIC to become a truly community-driven project.”

As for future innovations, the database will perhaps include the copyright information of each photographer’s work, which “will be useful to an institution wanting to digitise a collection, or a writer wanting to reproduce an image”, says Lowe, “But, in the meantime, I have plenty of work enriching what’s already there.”