Google Images come to Life

How did you experience the American Century? Much of it, for me, was framed through Life Magazine. It was always a pleasure to leaf through Life’s photos in issues collected by my grandparents — vibrant, propagandistic, king-sized.

TV news killed the big tent photo circus off, and frozen pop images of America shrank and segregated down to People, Newsweek, Playboy, Rolling Stone, etc. But the Google juggernaut has just announced a revival — that is, digitization of all Life images, distributed through Google Images. Already 20% of the Life photo corpus is online.

The usual Google scanning tradeoffs apply. The good news: sudden and profuse availability, serendipitous discovery of previously sequestered nuggets within the course of one search. The bad news: search reduced to the blunt satisfaction of keyword searching (looking for all Life photos of Julie Christie taken by Paul Schutzer in 1966? Easy to find some, hard to find all.) Google Images has taught us to work under these conditions; we approach it looking for anything pertinent, happy to sift through unrelated dreck as long as we find treasure.

But it’s a model that frays and sputters when a full corpus is set within it, and we start wishing for authoritative and complete trajectories through it. Want to undertake a complete analysis of, say, images of war in Life down through time? That seems tantalizingly possible, but in actuality you’ll have to wait for more serious cataloging. Until then, we have a fun little trick to limit a keyword search to Life images — in the Google search box, type source:life and, sure, roll your eyes.

Then there’s the ever-uneasy question of use. Am I breaking any rules by posting a Life photo on this blog? Is it ok to post a small version of the photo, but not the large watermarked ‘full size’? As of this writing, there is no clear guidance for re-use provided by Google; clearly they have brokered a deal with TimeLife, which hopes to sell prints of these photos to rediscoverers of them, but of course they will be a tiny fraction of the cutting and pasting crowd. Even so this could be a win-win, a simple version of the Google’s recent dramatic and complex agreement with publishers.

Still, photos are easier to swipe and recontextualize than text content. And by scattering these photos into Google Images stripped of their original context, Google and Life are clearly championing fragmentation, the free-floating repositionings of a captured moment, Life as clipart.

Hearkening back to those grandparent-collected magazines, though, I’m sorry that a fuller scan of the photos in situ wasn’t undertaken. Without complete scans of the classic Life issues, we won’t even have digital access to all the photographs in those big pages, no matter what Google claims. Many of the most amazing ones festooned advertisements: housewives daring Frigidaires, impossibly air conditioned Cadillacs, reassuring insurance, Kodak inviting you to capture your own life….

Still, it’s churlish not to celebrate the wide release of Great Photos into the digital wilderness, and I look forward to seeing how they actually fare in a Flickr world. And I wonder: is National Geographic next?

Comments are closed.