California Cool: The Met Archive goes Digital, Online, and Free

Smooth aesthetics, a razor sharp cultural focus, and the cutting edge of art, architecture and design – for those who call Los Angeles home, it might be all bright-lights-big-city, the epicenter of California cool and an endless vista of sophisticated whimsy, but we rarely stop to ponder from where this wellspring of American popular culture was sprung. As contemporary Los Angeles architects, we are constantly influenced by the legacy of SoCal pioneers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra, and John Lautner. But what about those who came before? Those who laid the ground work, built the infrastructure of architecture we now enjoy, and first realized the potential of this light and languid landscape; who saw a future in the mountainous backdrop and promoted a substance of architectural style to the masses who might want to go west and prosper? Thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which has recently digitized a large portion of its photographic design archive, we can now glimpse the nascence of the metropolis and its surrounding territory.

"architectural abstract" by Susan Sermoneta is licensed through Creative Commons under CC BY 2.0. 

With the release of more than 375,000 images to the public domain, the legendary New York institution has not only set a precedent for other cultural behemoths but has also made the history of California accessible in a way that was previously only possible to those who had the time, resources and inclination to visit the archive in person. The Met digitized the images and uploaded them to the Creative Commons, a non-profit that offers an alternative to full copyright, meaning all of the images are free to view and download without copyright restrictions, and will also be accessible on platforms like Wikimedia. As the Met’s Director, Thomas P. Campbell, has commented, the museum “now becomes the largest and most diverse open access museum collection in the world”, which makes art, architecture and design culture available to audiences who may only have dreamed of visiting the prestigious collections prior to the ambitious project. Importantly, the Met’s direction has set the tone for local stalwarts the Getty and LACMA, which have also begun similar initiatives. For example, Getty Images – one of (if not the) the largest source of imagery in the world – recently announced that it will allow free, non-commercial embedding of 35 million pictures from its stock photography database. These moves provide unfettered access to a diverse range of users and help build appreciation for art, architecture, design and culture among a wide audience.

“Los Angeles”, albumen silver print from glass negative, Carleton E. Watkins, 1876, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

With the dissemination of information increasingly, and quite literally, at our fingertips, the practice of making knowledge sharing a free and equitable activity is growing in popularity and demand. Creative Commons has become a trailblazer in the field of open global collaboration, helping to build a productive digital realm where anyone and everyone can upload their images for use and appreciation by the general public. CC helps individuals and institutions legally share information and provides free, easy-to-use copyright licenses, which in turn fosters a simple and standardized way to give the public permission to share and use creative works on conditions of the creators’ choice. In this way, the works become part of the public domain with the promise that users appropriately credit the original owner. While this caveat places great trust in the members of the public, it also opens an important dialogue about the governance of intellect, which is why CC is overseen by a network of over 500 researchers, activists and legal, education and policy advocates and volunteers who serve as CC representatives in over 85 countries to ensure region-specific approaches to copyright and intellectual property. They work with organizations and platforms including flickr, Wikipedia, YouTube, and vimeo to guarantee the responsible sharing of open data, so that institutions like the Met feel comfortable releasing content that otherwise would be closely guarded.

“Migrant Pea Picker’s Makeshift Home”, gelatin silver print, Dorothea Lange, 1936, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

As architects in Los Angeles who often look to the past to help us build the future of this great city, we are always researching, learning and seeking new creative inspiration. We are grateful to the Met for taking this groundbreaking step toward the democratization of culture, and will certainly be turning to the Met Archive and other digital repositories of artistic knowledge as we continue to design modern architecture in Los Angeles. In the meantime, we’ll continue to share our own original work and hope you’ll share your ideas with us, too!

Source: “Ten of the Coolest California Images from the Newly Digitized Met Archive”, by Julia Wick, laist, February 8th, 2017 (online)