April 1992

"Great. Just great. It has changed my life." That is Mary Ellen Mark's unequivocal assessment of how much she values the computerization of her photo library. The most unusual thing about Mark's system is her studio's use of database information and low‑resolution prints to create mini‑catalogues, from which clients can make picture selections.

The computerization project began six years ago, when Mark realized she had a major problem, one common to many photographers. As her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell puts it, Mark's photo library "was contained in cardboard boxes, and only Mary Ellen knew where each picture was." So late in 1986, Bell and Mark's staff (two full‑timers and two to four student interns) began to design a computer database filing system to streamline studio and library operations and organize the body of Mark's photography -currently over 10,000 images spanning her 25‑year career.

Recently, the library has added desktop publishing to the computer operation, for creating editions of 40 to 50 black‑and‑white 8 1/2 x 11" photo‑catalogue booklets for every new story Mark shoots. Several PC‑based software packages are used to make the booklets, which combine 3 x 5" low‑resolution scans (in a grainy texture called a "diffusion dither") along with catalogue information, such as file number, story title, caption, publications, etc. At the bottom of each page is the name, phone and address of the studio. If the story has already been published, the booklet also includes a Xerox copy of it and a printout of the text. Averaging 25 pages each, the editions are bound in ZeloBind plastic binders with a brief story synopsis on the cover page.

Instead of mailing costly prints to potential stock buyers, Mark's studio sends out booklets of images output at laser-printer resolution.
The centerpiece of the entire computer operation is the library database, which functions as a master catalogue of each and every one of Mark's photographs. The system‑designed by Bell and library director Teri Barbero, with software code by Anna Roma (who used the Clipper database language)‑is essentially a list of Mark's photos organized by catalogue number, with other information added as well.

Each and every image from a job is assigned a unique ten‑digit alpha‑numerical code; three digits plus a letter refer to the story and publication type (whether the images were shot for a book, magazine or movie); the second series of three digits identifies the contact sheet; the final series of three digits (or two plus a letter) IDs every frame number on the contact sheet.

Other information that gets logged into the system includes the title of each story, the date of the shot, the country, the category (movie still, story, book), a brief description, the publication the work was shot for, and the keywords; caption info is entered into a different module.

The database also has other sections which organize Mark's contact lists and client information, as well as her photography equipment‑the number and contents of every storage and shipping case and its shipping weight.

The system and most of the software is centralized on a Compac 386 fileserver PC and accessed via any of three 386 PC workstations around the library; all the computers are hooked up together over an Ethernet network using Novell NetWare.

"This is more than just a computerized record‑keeping mechanism," says Barbero. "The database has powerful search functions and can generate all kinds of printed reports, forms and mailing labels." For instance, using keywords or any two categories, the studio can quickly print a list of photographs by category. Clients and contact lists can be searched and printed out by any two of the fields‑the account's contact name, the company, city, state, zip code, country or recent activity.

To make the software even more productive, Barbero, Bell and Roma are planning to incorporate invoicing and accounting into the PC network (it's currently handled on three Mac SEs using separate software).

"But the most exciting part of all this is publishing the catalogue booklets," Barbero says. The system's primary purpose was to allow potential clients to view pictures and make selections without having to be sent costly prints. Basically, the booklets contain all the best shots from a specific story, printed at fairly low laser‑printer resolution that's quite acceptable for review and editing. Workprints are scanned on a Hewlett Packard HP Scanjet + Scanner and Scangal 5 software. Each image file is approximately 150k to 200k of data, and gets stored on a Mac file server, separate from the text database.

"When a client comes in," Barbero continues, "and says, 'I want to see the work on the Indian Circus,' I can pull out a copy of the Indian Circus booklet instead of the actual prints. The client reviews the booklet and can say, 'I want to see a print of the picture on pages 4, 8, and 12,' and I can give him just those photos. So the booklets cut down on a lot of effort and expense."

When Mark's recent retrospective book, Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years (Bulfinch), was being assembled, "we could always get a print for the publisher, no waiting‑we just made laser prints," Barbero says. "And we can just tell a client to throw a laser print away when they're done with it."

To create the booklets, Barbero uses the database's search module to locate and organize the records for all the images which go into the booklet; "next I download that information‑the title, the date, the catalogue numbers, etc. to WordPerfect, which formats the text. We use PageMaker to layout the actual booklet pages; I have a template page, so all I really have to do is electronically place each image on the page, flow the text into position, and print the page on the laser printer. You could make the catalogue pictures any size you want, but for our purposes we wanted to keep 'em small so we wouldn't have to deal with all that data."

Mark estimates that "all told, I'm sure the system has cost us over $100,000‑at least; maybe twice that…I'm interested in what makes my life easy. And the database really helps us stay organized." Once it was set up, logging everything into the system quickly became routine, says Bell, and the studio is certainly saving money on prints, and perhaps making more sales as a result of it.

Mark also finds it makes her life easier in other ways. "I just came back from Sweden, where I gave a lecture. I have a whole bunch of names‑they'll all go into the computer," she says. "It's a fantastic way to keep your whole library of contacts, listings of equipment, repairs, insurance lists, everything."

"Ultimately," Bell says, "all of these networks (like our own Ethernet system of Macs and PCs) are going to be joined together. Soon, we'll be testing out having photo researchers dial into the system to research the files. Higher computer clock speeds, fiber optic cables.. it's going to happen, and it will become easy to just whiz pictures around the world."