A group of Pratt Institute students recently used images from the New York Public Library (NYPL) Picture Collection to curate The Naming of Things, an interactive exhibition on view at the Pratt Photography Gallery this fall. The show explores the subjective nature of the cataloging process, in which images are categorized in order to be searched and accessed by the public.

The students developed the project last spring for the Curatorial Practices course taught by Adjunct Associate Professor of Photography Peter Kayafas. The class is one of a suite of electives in the Photography Department that focus on career pathways within the field, including Editorial Photography, Fashion Photography, and the required Professional Practices course. 

Since 1915, the NYPL Picture Collection has housed 1.5 million circulating images with 12,000 subjects, cataloged using subjective interpretation by individual members of the library staff. Working with the Collection, the Pratt student curators learned how to access archives and conduct research as they developed their thematic exhibition through all of the steps from concept through editing, digital and physical presentation, and promotion.

The students—Ethan Kell (B.F.A. Photography ’18), Jingqi Liu (B.Arch. ’19), Abbi Newfeld (B.F.A. Photography ’18), Sam O’Neill (B.F.A. Photography ’17), and Caroline Sartono (B.F.A. Interior Design ’18)—brought the perspective of their different disciplines to the project and the space. The Naming of Things features two rooms: one where visitors can explore images already cataloged by NYPL staff, and another that displays images that have not yet been cataloged, which viewers can help name using a custom-designed app in the gallery.

What images might be found in categories such as “Autumn” or “Love”? The Naming of Things encourages visitors to both consider and experience how we use words to define pictures and how those words affect a viewer’s understanding of images.

Student curator Newfeld was inspired by project and what she found at the NYPL Picture Collection. “I fell in love with the [NYPL Picture Collection] environment and how there is so much information all collected by human hands. Google might have billions of images cataloged online, but I never find what I’m looking for,” she said. “I’m going back [to the NYPL] soon to look for things that will help me with my thesis.”

Kayafas noted several thought-provoking aspects of the students’ work. “In an age when the vast majority of pictures are cataloged, shared, and judged digitally online, The Naming of Things reminds us of the importance of the tactile presence of pictures in print,” he said, referring to the physical objects on view. He also pointed out how the students “invert the more conventional relationship between digital technology and pictures: the custom-built application that allows visitors to ‘name’ the pictures is in the service of the objects that are present in the gallery.”

In addition, aggregate data from the app will be presented to the NYPL staff for consideration, meaning that exhibition visitors have the opportunity to apply their own subjective judgment in a way that may come to define how each image is cataloged.

The Naming of Things will be on view at the Pratt Photography Gallery on the Brooklyn Campus until December 15, 2017.

Images: The Naming of Things at the Pratt Photography Gallery; (inset) visitors help name images using a custom-designed app in the gallery