Harriet Estel Berman blogged about the topic of documentation with reference to artistic works. She states:
"Photographic documentation (including video and film) can be especially important when working with alternative or unproven materials. While the temporal nature of the materials may be a critical characteristic that makes the work interesting, the documentation may be the only aspect that survives for posterity. A photo clearly establishes exactly how the artist visualized the work, fresh - before it ages, degrades, or disappears."
When it comes to conserving the built world, preservationists have been combating the cycle of deterioration with photographic documentation for over a century. The WPA era brought about the HABS/HAER project, and numerous other film ventures. The City Poem emerged as a moving story of depression era Americana.
But, preservationists continue to fight the urge to document alone, despite the relative success of such endeavors.
Public history has hammered into the preservation psyche for several decades. Social history and the American vernacular remains a prevalent piece to contemporary preservation, as mounting environmental concerns continue to nag professionals. For some, the "preserve at all cost" mentality is wrought with elitism and a classicist mentality, which includes the preservation and focus of social, public history. As Americans clamber to produce revisionist histories, the environmental concern is pushed onto the back burner.
Now, this post is not arguing that social history has no place in preservation, but it is arguing that preservation is a material based discipline.Shouldn't preservation be focusing on the conservation of material rather than narrative?
The photo document is strong evidence. In some cases, a picture is worth a thousand words, or a thousand vernacular structures that have been severely altered. If preservationist accept that some buildings are meant to meet the bulldozer, document accordingly, then perhaps efforts can begin to focus on more substantial issues, like carbon footprint and the lagging job market.
The author of this post has surveyed and written over 400 histories of buildings across Cleveland, Ohio. Sometimes, the picture is the best story. Sometimes, the building is just a building. The real cost to community is focusing on revisionist histories.
Time rights past wrongs, but only through education and progress of the individual.
Human beings, tribal animals, truly can never be appeased by one history.
We can learn from photo documentation, and it costs far less than attempting to stabilize a sinking neighborhood. We can archive, preserve and make certain that these images are protected. We can't guarantee the same to failing neighborhoods, and a historic designation doesn't always save the most threatened unless effort is unleashed in numerous ways.
Environmental consciousness allows preservationists to promote their cause, inspire others, and conserve object. Social history is still important, but sinking precious financial resources into such endeavors most often does little. Photo documentation is a tool to be used cautiously. One can document "progress". One can argue the preservation of vital resources, and the integration of new techniques to further sustainability communities.