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Metadata History

Before the computer revolution — and even during the early stages of digitization — metadata were the bits of information we wrote, stamped, typed or printed on slide mounts, glassine envelopes, mats or the backs and borders of photographic prints. When your great-great-great grandmother scratched names on the frame of a daguerreotype in the mid-1800s, she created early photo metadata.

As with much digital age jargon, the term "metadata" seems to prompt more than a few blank stares and rolled eyes.

At first glance, the idea of metadata, and more particularly photo metadata, appears to be among concepts better left to the technically savvy. Those creating and working with images may prefer to spend time on the images themselves — not on what might seem an obscure task that embodies who knows what.

But wait a second. Although metadata may seem to have little to do with images, they've actually been around almost as long photography. We just didn't call them metadata then. We referred to them as "captions," "cutlines," "bylines" or "copyrights." Sometimes, we called them nothing at all. But we could easily see them on a print or slide mount.

Photo metadata: a simple concept

There is nothing very difficult about the idea of photo metadata. It is information about a picture that must be communicated in text because it's not obvious in the picture itself.

How many of us have tried in vain to learn the identity of an ancestor pictured in an old photo? Unfortunately, you can't write on the back of a digital photograph, though even this did not present a serious problem in the early days of digitization when photos were digitized only for transmission purposes.  In those days, the photos, particularly those used by editorial outlets,  were created using traditional silver halide technology –– film and conventional printing paper -- then scanned and transmitted to a machine that printed the images back onto paper. The digital version was of little consequence because it disappeared after transmission. At the receiving end, the new print typically was sent to editorial and production departments much as if it were an original print created in a nearby darkroom.

In this environment, photographers transmitting the images typed the photo metadata (cutlines, bylines, dates, locations, etc.) on a strip of paper, attach the strip to the margin of the print and transmitted the verbal information as part of the photo. Everything stayed nicely together.

But, as digital technology developed, keeping digital and written data married became increasingly difficult.

In today's world, a photograph may be made on a digital camera, transmitted in digital format to a location on the other side of the world, cropped and color corrected on the receiving computer and then published in a digital medium like the Internet. It then might be stored for future possible use on a digital hard drive, optical disk or flash storage device. In such cases, a physical image never exists.

This presents problems not considered when a photograph was always a physical thing stored in a physical location and usually presented in a physical medium like a book, a magazine, a newspaper or family album.

Metadata today

In today's digital world, metadata is like the blank back of a printed photo.  This digital file that accompanies an image is a "place" to "write" information about the image –– who made it, who owns the copyrights, what the image depicts, who is in the image, where it was made, when it was made and even camera settings used to create it.

The metadata file can be accessed using a number of digital imaging programs.  Importantly, it usually remains with an image even after the image has been reproduced countless times or changed using the editing software.

And this is very important.

As pictures age and the people who made and edited them move on to other things, get old or  die. The metadata file may be all that remains to tell those who follow about the instant depicted in the photograph.

However, metadata is still not perfect.

Some computer programs still do not recognize metadata, and may ignore. In other cases they may actually do harm, by inadvertently removing or "stripping" it from the digital file.

People also can intentionally remove or re-write metadata.  Some unsavory types have been known to erase copyright information, allowing them to plead ignorance when the copyright owner surfaces and tries to exert control over the the image or collect a usage fee.

Additionally, it is entirely possible that some people may want to alter the perception others have of history. Changing the metadata with certain photos could help the over-zealous achieve political ends if you have the only existing copy of an image.

And there always is the question of which metadata fields should be commonly included in metadata files.  Most current metadata files favor the needs of editorial institutions.  This has sometimes been an annoyance for non-editorial image users.  For example, the stock photography industry, which usually wants reproduction rights transmitted with an image, has worked with the International Press Telecommunication Council (IPTC) and PLUS to get their needs heard. Recently Adobe has added DICOM metadata for communicating medical information that is included with x-rays, and other types of medical imagery. Unfortunately, scientists, architects, engineers and others may have additional needs which aren't currently met and may require that they find ways to work within the system to meet their unique purposes.

Future generations

Yet, digital photographic metadata is an increasingly useful tool for all who value what images bring to our lives. Without metadata, historians studying our times could be deprived of important information about who we were, what we thought and how we lived. Without metadata, families could lose the ability to reach back across time and know whose ancestral eyes peer back.

And, without metadata, image creators could lose control of the photos they create and, if the U.S. Congress or other country eventually passes an orphan works bill, the ability to make a living from their most valuable images.

In the end, Metadata connects the image creator and viewer, with a time, a place, a subject (or subjects), an event and a moment in history.  In the absence of these connections, the value of an image diminishes or disappears entirely.

For a more technical and detailed history of metadata, read on.