Flickr and Wikimedia Commons (also known as Wikicommons) are very effective image search engines for the typical twenty-first century individual. I wanted to put these two websites to the test when it comes to finding useful images for a Greenwich Village historian. The theme of my own project is Anarchy and Protest in Greenwich Village During the Vietnam War Era. This was a more difficult task than I had anticipated given the goals of each of these two websites. The majority of stakeholders and active users on Flickr utilize the site to post more recent and personal photographs than historical ones. Wikicommons, on the other hand, is a fundamental online image encyclopedia that lacks depth in its collection, which will hopefully be rectified over time. The body of this blog post will go into detail about my experiences with these online image databases. The concluding paragraph will give a more general sense of how useful each website is for historians.
The names of the anarchy groups on which my project is centered skewed the results of image searches. The most critical groups are Black Mask and Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. Black Mask returned images of tribal masks and comic book villains. Needless to say, this was not what I was hoping for. In an effort to improve my results, I added key words like “anarchy” to the search. What resulted on Flickr were mostly masks from the movie “V for Vendetta,” while there were no results on Wikicommons. Searching for images of the group Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers had slightly better returns. I believe this was because the group name is so unique. This was unlike Black Mask, which consists of more common words and thus brings with it many more times the number of results.
In discussing what I found from my search for Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, I must first explain the group’s origin. Over the course of my research, I discovered that Black Mask and Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers were tied together. Black Mask was formed in the mid-1960s and was a very visual group. Its members were often seen protesting in public in New York City ranging in places from the Museum of Modern Art to Wall Street. Leaders of Black Mask decided to take the group underground, eliminating its publicity element, toward the end of the 1960s. The group was renamed Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. For this very reason I expected to find very few, if any, visuals of Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. My search for the group on Wikicommons had zero results, and suggested that I reform my search to the more censored “up against the wall motherless”. I did so just to see what would show up, and again “there were no results matching the query”. Apparently, Wikicommons just wanted me to remove the word “Motherfucker” from the search with no intention of producing better results. My search on Flickr for the group, as I briefly mentioned earlier, bore fruit. There were two Black Mask images in the results. One was a brief manifesto, and the other was a photograph from the group’s Wall Street protest. Different Flickr users uploaded these two images. The manifesto copy was even tagged “Black Mask” in addition to “Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers”, which is significant because the user who uploaded it knew the history and evolution of the New York City anarchy group. Both of these positive returns for my Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers search were Black Mask in origin, and were likely buried by tons of other images in my Black Mask search. They also were not tagged “anarchy”, which is why they did not appear in my refined search of “Black Mask anarchy group”.
Since the process had, so far, been like pulling teeth, I decided to try a different approach. My new plan of attack was twofold: I began to search for images of specific events directly relating to the groups I had researched, and more current photographs of places where such historical moments took place. This was where I had the most success with Flickr and Wikicommons.
The following were some positive examples that came from my change in approach, with some historical background: In 1967, Black Mask led a protest outside the Pentagon that turned into a violent outbreak. I found an image of a more peaceful moment on Wikicommons by searching “Black Mask Pentagon Vietnam protest”. The Weather Underground Organization (also known as the Weathermen), a group that I have not mentioned yet, had an accidental explosion while assembling bombs in the basement of a Greenwich Village townhouse. Three of the group’s members died and two escaped with serious injuries. I found an image on Wikicommons of firemen putting out the fires at the site by searching “Weathermen townhouse explosion”. Lastly, the Yippies, also being mentioned for the first time, were another radical leftist New York City group that held many public protests. One of the most famous incidents involving Yippies was at the New York Stock Exchange. Members of the group threw money from the balcony at traders on the floor. This event was blown up by the media after-the-fact, which was probably why I could not find any photographs of the event as it unfolded. I was, however, able to find recent photographs of the outside and inside of the New York Stock Exchange on Flickr.
The goals of Flickr and Wikicommons are different and thus pose dissimilar challenges to historians. Flickr is primarily a website for personal photographs, and is sometimes referred to as a social media website. Tangential to that, it is a hub of images of much more current people and places. Finding photographs from the 1960s on Flickr is a tall task in itself, let alone locating significant images pertaining to anarchy groups during the era. Most of the time, the best that Flickr can do for historians is present recent visuals of important sites of the past. Wikicommons, on the other hand, is more of an educational website than Flickr. Wikicommons is more useful to historians given its purpose and that its collection includes images that may serve as a sort of primary document. From my experience within the parameters of this project, neither image database provided me with much success. In the end, I would say that Wikicommons is a better historical tool to study mid-20th century Greenwich Village than Flickr.