Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Archival mysteries

Yesterday, Der Spiegel and Lens, the visual and multimedia reporting blog of the New York Times, published a lengthy, unsettling, and thought-provoking post about a Nazi photo album that has recently surfaced. The album is unusual in that it depicts both Nazi leaders -- Hitler among them -- and victims of Nazi persecution. No one, including the elderly garment industry executive who received it in lieu of cash repayment of a loan, knew who created it, but it documents the travels of a Nazi Party unit responsible for planning mass rallies from Berlin to Minsk and Smolensk -- via Danzig (now Gdansk), Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), and Barysaw -- and to Munich.

The owner of the album, who has pressing health and financial problems, wants to sell it, and he hoped that pinpointing its provenance would increase its selling price. The New York Times, intrigued by the historical mystery, researched the album, digitized some of its images, and put them online in hopes that readers would be able to shed light on its origins; however, they made it plain to the owner that their findings might decrease the album's monetary value and that they would not ask any of the experts that they consulted to furnish an estimate of the album's selling price.

Lens author David Dunlap and his colleagues consulted with staff at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem, and New York University and with professors at New York University and Columbia and learned the following:
  • As even a cursory glance at the well-composed and well-executed photographs reveals, the photographer was a skilled professional. Moreover, the photographer may have been attached to the Propagandakompanie of the Wehrmacht, and this album may have been his personal property.
  • The pictures were taken in 1941, as evidenced by images of a meeting between Hitler and Admiral Miklos Horvathy, the regent of Hungary, in what was then the East Prussian city of Rastenburg (now Katrzyn, Poland).
  • The album contains a number of images of prisoners of war, including several of prisoners who wore yellow Stars of David. Photographs of Jewish P.O.W.'s are relatively rare: in most instances, Jewish P.O.W.'s were swiftly turned over to the S.S. and executed, a fate that almost certainly befell the Jews depicted in this album.
  • One of the images of prisoners is identical to photograph No. 1907/15 held by Vad Yashem's Stephen Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.
  • The photographer himself appears in several of the images, most notably those taken in Bavaria, where he wore civilian clothes. Moreover, many of the Bavarian photographs, including several in which the photographer is depicted, feature an anonymous woman.
In a textbook example of the value of crowdsourcing, the mystery of the album was solved a few hours after the New York Times and Der Spiegel published the images. Harriet Scharnberg, a German doctoral student who is researching German propaganda photographs depicting Jews, recognized the images of Jewish prisoners and identified the photographer, Franz Krieger (1914-1993), a native of Salzburg, Austria who left the S.S. to join the Propagandakompanie in 1941. Dr. Peter Kramml, the author of a book on Krieger's work, also identified Krieger and supplied confirming evidence.

Scharnberg and Kramml shed light on the circumstances that led to the album's creation and, to a lesser extent, its arrival in the United States:
  • Krieger traveled to the Eastern Front in August 1941, and the album documents his journey. He photographed the meeting between Hitler and Horvathy on his way home from the front.
  • The woman in the Bavarian photos is Krieger's wife Frieda, who died in the 17 November 1944 Allied bombing raid on Salzburg; the couple's two year-old daughter, Heidrun, also perished.
  • Shortly after Krieger returned from the Eastern Front, he left the Propagandakompanie and became a regular soldier, and when the war ended he became a businessman. He never again worked as a professional photographer.
  • The album, which might have been among the photographs that his mother apparently gave away at one point, was most likely brought to the United States by an American soldier, but its postwar chain of custody may always remain a mystery.
I strongly encourage you to check out the Lens posts (or, if you're fluent in German, the Der Speigel post, which is available here). The images are compelling and disturbing, and the speed with which the album's creator was identified ought to be an inspiration to archivists and other people seeking to learn more about records that have a tantalizingly incomplete provenance.

We should nonetheless keep in mind the counsel of Marvin Taylor, the head of New York University's Fales Library, who noted before the images were published that the photographs were printed on two different types of paper and thus may have been the work of more than one person, that the album might have been assembled by a third party, and that the photographs might not have been in chronological order: "We think we can get so close to these people [i.e., records creators], but we can’t. They are not the same people we are. We come up with assumptions -- and the material always undermines what we think." Although it's heartening to see an archival mystery solved with such speed and accuracy, we archivists should always keep in mind that some of our mysteries resist solution and that our own assumptions and conclusions may lead us astray.

And if you believe that the digital age will be devoid of archival mystery, let me assure you that, thanks to missing and incorrect metadata, corrupted files, ill-advised migrations and conversions, murky transfers of custody, and a host of other problems, we are on the cusp of a most mysterious age. Earlier today, I was looking through a series of born-digital photographs in an effort to find exhibit-worthy images and started scrutinizing their internal timestamps, which are visible only when the images are displayed at 10 times their original size and which aren't included in the metadata that accompanied these images. I quickly realized that when sorted by file name, these images, which were taken seconds apart and run through a variety of systems before they were transferred to my repository, are actually in reverse chronological order -- something that escaped me when I initially processed these files several years ago. This isn't the first digital mystery I've encountered, and it most certainly won't be the last.


Mike Andrec said...

Fascinating story. Wish we could solve some of our many archival mysteries this way, but unfortunately we don't have a big enough "crowd" yet...

I've heard of EXIF timestamps, but never of an internal timestamp visible at 10x zoom. Is this particular to a certain camera manufacturer?

l'Archivista said...

@Mike: the images were taken with a MegaPlus 16.8i camera, which produces 4,096 pixel x 4,096 pixel images. I figured out earlier today that the timestamps were produced by third-party software created specifically for this camera.

The images I was examining are aerial photographs of a part of New York State with which I'm reasonably familiar, and I started suspecting that the photos were in reverse chronological order when I zeroed in on one sequence of 10 images and started poring through the flight logs that were transferred with the images. When organized by file name, the images looked as if the plane was flying from south to north when the images were taken, but the flight logs indicated that the plane was flying from north to south at the time.

The pilots shot hundreds of images in a single day, and I initially assumed that the flight crew had made a mistake. However, when I started zooming in and examining details in specific images, I realized that the images contained tiny timestamps and that these timestamps aligned perfectly with time spans listed in the flight logs. I started checking other sequences of photographs and discovered that, when sorted by file name, the images were usually -- but not always -- in reverse chronological order.

Lest anyone think that the creators were simply being sloppy, I have to stress that these photographs weren't really meant to be seen in sequence. From the outset, the creators planned to orthorectify these images and pull them into a Geographic Information System, where they would form a GPS-based mosaic. Moreover, it's quite evident that the file names of the raw images are not those assigned by the third-party camera software but by some other application. I have some theories regarding the origin of the file names, but at the moment I don't have much in the way of facts.

I'm planning to post more about these records when the exhibit I'm working on is available online, and I hope that the mystery of the file names will have been solved by that time.

records management said...

I was fascinated with your story especially with the connection between photograph from 40's and digital photography up-to-date. I guess mistakes and lack of order will continue in some way. We, for sure, must do everything in order to correct it but still I'm sure that coming generation after us will find our mistakes too.