Revisiting Past Practices through a Contemporary Digital Lens: NYPL’s Public Eye

If you’ve never been to the main branch of New York City’s Public Library, on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in a magnificent Beaux-Arts landmark building, you might not realized it also houses lovely exhibit spaces (free for all to walk in).

Yesterday I checked out Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography, a lovely exhibit they describe as their “first-ever retrospective survey of photography organized by NYPL.” Rather than frame the photos in their historic context, the exhibit uses contemporary social media practices, such as photo sharing, to view these photos as pre-digital antecedents. That’s an interesting twist – so rather than view a wall of Facebook profiles the exhibit highlights photos from the early day of photography that played similar, or related, social functions. It was a refreshing way to help visitors find meaning in past objects.

I was still disappointed that the exhibit didn’t include contemporary practices but, given those digital assets are outside the Library’s collection, I understood that said more about me than the exhibit. But the Library did go beyond their collections to include new digital interactives and opportunities for visitors to bring the exhibit into their social network.

UntitledAbove might be a challenging image to interpret. It appears to be a camera looking down at a couple (my wife and I, incongruously with an umbrella) standing next to a phrase and hashtag on the floor. In fact, my wife is the one taking the photo, on her phone, looking UP at a mirror slanted over head, the phrase and hashtag printed BACKWARDS on the ground (note the backwards EXIT sign behind us). In other words, as we entered the exhibit, we had to pass beneath a slanted mirror reflecting our image back to us, perfectly framed and titled for selfies and social media sharing. Very smart. And for those uninterested in selfies, the experience reflects one of the contemporary themes of the exhibit – in our era of pervasive surveillance, we are all always in the public eye. Check out the latest images posted by visitors here.

There were also two digital interactives in the exhibit. Unfortunately, both were broken. The good news is that both are available online:

On Broadway: “Representing digital traces of life in a twenty-first century city, On Broadway compiles images and other data collected along the thirteen miles of Broadway that span Manhattan.”

Stereogranimator: “View, create, and share 3D images from the stereograph collections of The New York Public Library and Boston Public Library. You can also stereogranimate your own photos via Flickr.”

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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