The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration
MIND: Documenting Invention

Inventing | Documenting | Things to Collect | Resources

Photography and Video Documentation

Techniques used by documentary photographers, filmmakers, and oral and cultural historians can be adapted to the study of invention. Digital tools, including photography and video, offer creative ways to capture the inventor at work. Becoming familar with these tools and techniques will help an archivist enrich the documentary record with his or her personal insights into the collecting experience.

The purpose of visual documentation is, in the end, to convey the richness of invention as a problem-solving process by bringing the invention itself into visible dialog with its creator(s). Understanding the technical elements of the invention, however, is a matter of preparation and strategy.

Using video and photography to document an interview can increase our understanding of invention as a process but also presents challenges to interview planning. Determining the goals of the interview beforehand is critical.

The basic research interview. This interview is intended principally for research purposes. Its product includes either a transcript with an index or audio files keyed to a subject/time index and still photographs taken during the interview. The equipment for this project should include a cassette or digital sound recorder with microphones that can be placed near the interviewer and interviewee, and if feasible, a camera used to document the interviewee and any artifacts discussed during the interview.

The advanced research interview. This interview adds the use of video to more fully document the invention process. In addition to creating an audio recording, written transcript, and still photographs, the interviewer should seek to collect artifacts and other records pertaining to the inventive process for the purposes of research and exhibition. Video may be used judiciously to capture processes, skills, or other elements that are difficult to capture with still photography alone. This video serves primarily as additional documentation, and is not necessarily production quality.

The interview for documentary film. Such an interview includes a video production team along with the interviewer(s) to create production-quality video for broadcast. The technical demands of creating video for documentary purposes are not typically attainable by an interviewer whose primary task is generating a good interview. In fact, the demands of production will drive the interview so it is unlikely that a research-grade interview will result. Therefore, it may be desirable to conduct a separate oral history interview off-camera. A transcript and indexed sound files are necessary, both for research purposes and to facilitate preparation of the documentary film.

Last Update: 28 Dec 2010

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