The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
I work with people across the Smithsonian to add photos to the Smithsonian Flickr Commons photostream. Occasionally, something stands out in the daily summary of comments and tags I receive. Sometimes, it’s an exchange between Flickr members sparked by a single photo, such as this one around the portrait of journalist and adventurer, Henry Stanley, and his servant. Other times, I notice a single person furiously tagging and researching a group of photos. It makes me wonder who they are and why the connection to the photo set. For the Women in Science photo set we released in March for Women's History Month, that person was Flickr member, pennylrichardsca, or Penny Richards. She correctly identified British botanist, Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker in this portrait and gave us leads on a few others. Working on the web, our visitors are a mystery except through statistics, usability surveys, and email inquiries. With this post, I am launching a ‘meet and greet’ of sorts so we can get to know you and find out why you enter our virtual doors.
Tell us about you. I'm Penny Richards. I live in Redondo Beach, CA, I'm a mom at home with two kids in school, and a research scholar affiliated with UCLA's Center for the Study of Women. I also teach as a volunteer in the local art education program, and blog a lot.
How did you find out about the Flickr Commons and why do you spend time there? I think I ran across Flickr Commons right when it first started. I had been using the Bain Collection at the Library of Congress site already, writing about some of the images for the Disability Studies, Temple U. blog. When the Bain Collection started appearing on Flickr, I was glad to point it out to our blog audience. I hope more of them will help with the disability history images, because that's my main field (I'm on the board of the Disability History Association-- thus the [Disability History] Flickr group). I love the crowdsourcing aspect of Flickr Commons--being part of a worldwide group of users tagging and contextualizing the images is great fun, and appeals to my sense of history as a community process. I don't get to be in archives as much as I did as a grad student, so this is my substitute. And if I find something to share with other disability historians, all the better. For example, I was on the editorial board for the soon-to-be-released _Encyclopedia of American Disability History_ (Facts on File 2009), and was able to suggest a number of images from the Commons for use in the Encyclopedia.
What is your favorite Smithsonian photo on the Commons? My favorite Smithsonian photo in the Commons? Hmmm....I've really enjoyed the portraits of women scientists and artists that went up recently. For my collage needs, the striking portraits like Mildred Adams Fenton or Peggy Bacon are perfect. But I have other favorites for browsing: I really love the Belize Larval Fish Group, and my great-grandfather was a postman so I'm drawn to the series on postal carriers, and the Thomas William Smillie set is mesmerizing.
How did you go about digging up information on the Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker portrait? Any advice for other people embarking on photo research? Kathleen Mary Drew turned up in Ogilvie and Harvey's invaluable reference, The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. That's on Google Books, so it was searchable, not too much detective work involved.
What are your favorite photos to research? My favorite photos to research are women's portraits, or images from suffrage parades and rallies. If a woman is only listed as "Mrs. John Smith," that's just begging me to find her a real first name, for starters... ;) I was glad to solve the mystery of the women in badges. Mrs. Diehl and Mrs. Gillespie turned out to be policewomen in 1913 Philadelphia. Linking up the various de Acosta sisters was fun. Working through changes in how Chinese names are transliterated was part of the fun on this one. And I loved that a relative of Eva Morrison came around to tell her story here.
Tell us about your craft projects with photos from the Flickr Commons! As you noted, I also use the images in collage projects, like my "upcycled handbags." Those started when I had a nice purse with an ugly stain. Painted it, added some words and images, and it was fun to carry again. Then I wanted to make more, and the best images to use were from the Commons--no known copyright restrictions, and a lot of excellent subjects like suffragettes and aviators. I like to know real stories behind the faces on my bags, so I avoid vintage images of models or unknown portraits, which tend to be a bit cliched and too pretty for me. I like to be able to say "she was a civil-rights activist in the 1910s" or "she was the fourth woman in the world to have a pilot's license.
Note: This interview has been edited from its original.
A few days ago, watching TV and seeing Barack Obama face yet another gaggle of photographers and videographers, I found myself thinking (again) about how central being photographed was to a president’s work, power, and celebrity. Wondering how many photo ops he’s got to do every day, and how that gets organized, I was happy to find some answers and insight in a recent post by Stephen Crowley on Lens, a New York Times blog devoted to photojournalism. Crowley's post, and the accompanying video will fill you in on life in the White House photo pool.
Strangely beautiful surveillance photographs shot from an American U-2 spy plane triggered a terrifying nuclear standoff, The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. In a new click! photography changes everything entry, Sandra S. Phillips, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, recounts how information extracted from seemingly abstract images made the Cold War heat up and changed the course of history.
The first thing that I thought of when we started discussing our new call for entry, "seeing other worlds," was Google Earth. When Google Earth first came out in 2004, I remember the novelty of being able to zoom into my hometown to point out details to college friends, and having them pan across their own homes and favorite travel spots. We could travel across the globe without leaving our dorm rooms. Since then, Google has made it easy to see far-flung parts of the universe with Google Earth, Google Sky, and Google Ocean. These applications have turned out to be particularly potent tools for environmentalists. Teaming up with Google, projects like the UN Environment Programme’s Atlas of Our Changing Environment have used satellite photographs to effectively point out serious environmental problems, like the incredibly fast rate at which the Aral Sea is losing volume. Even more powerfully, Google Earth Outreach has given everyday citizens the chance to team up with larger environmental organizations to not only learn about environmental problems worldwide, but to also help geo-tag and visually track environmental problems in their own back yards. In these cases, the old adage "seeing is believing" proves true—being able to zoom in on the earth and see for oneself is key to understanding, and drumming up public support for, environmental issues. One unexpected side-effect: if you can’t see something on Google Earth, does it exist? In 2007 when the North Pacific Trash Vortex (also known as the Pacific Garbage Patch) was first heavily publicized, comments like these appeared (and still do appear) around the web: "Looked on Google earth, found nothing the size of Texas in that area 'cept for some water (which was actually a lot bigger than Texas). I'm all about saving the environment, but seriously, thats just absurd." "Google Earth coordinates or it didn't happen." "Would it be possible to google earth this? This thing isn't on any of my maps." "There are never EVER pics when this story comes up. If its as big as a continent, then tell the astronauts to take a picture!!!" "PICS OR IT DIDN'T HAPPEN" As Charles Moore, the American oceanographer who originally discovered the garbage vortex notes, the garbage can’t actually be seen via satellite because most of the rubbish is translucent, constantly in motion, and lies just below the water's surface. And though dozens of scrupulous scientific reports and even a recent Oprah episode shine a light on the Trash Vortex with on-the-ground photographs and video of parts of the Vortex, some are still anxious for an all-encompassing aerial view of the garbage patch from Google Earth. Now that satellite imagery offers an acute and instant "bigger picture" of phenomena occuring on the earth, the limited frame of the typical camera and video camera can no longer provide proof for many.
Though photographs are accepted as subjective but ultimately faithful visual reproductions of reality, in many instances they don’t correspond to our experience. Pupils don’t regularly glint red, and people don’t transform into the streaked, evanescent smears we so often witness in photos. Yet we have no trouble accepting these inconsistencies, knowing that taking a picture of a scene intrudes into the "reality" of that scene, and thus the resulting photograph is both a depiction of a real image and the story of its capture. And so we explain away the red eyes as a product of the camera’s flash, and the smear as the result of someone moving more quickly than the camera’s exposure time. We take intuitive steps in these instances to interpret the photos and reconcile them with reality. Something similar happens in understanding the photo-like reproductions of physical data produced by radar imaging, but the interpretive steps are far more complex. Bruce Campbell, of the Center for Earth and Planetary Sciences (CEPS) at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, is at the forefront of Earth-based radar mapping of the moon. With the help of Lynn Carter and myself, both at CEPS, he has been working the last five years to make radar maps of the entire near side of the Moon and its poles. The maps are being constructed in a piecemeal fashion: about 120 egg-shaped patches, each covering a unique portion of the lunar surface and overlapping slightly with those adjacent to it, will be mosaicked together into a 72000 by 48000 pixel cylindrical map and two 23000 by 23000 pixel polar maps. Each patch is mapped at 80m/pixel, the highest resolution Earth-based radar maps of the Moon’s surface yet produced. As of today, the project is over half complete; around 60 of these patches have been processed and incorporated into the working mosaics. With all of the high-resolution visible light images of the lunar surface obtained since the 1960’s, what additional information does radar imaging provide? Radar employs radio waves, the longest in the electromagnetic spectrum, with wavelengths up to the meter scale. Longer waves are able to penetrate surfaces that would reflect shorter waves like those in the visible portion of the spectrum. Thus the 12.6-cm waves used in this mapping probe a meter or more into the regolith (the layer of dust and rock blanketing almost the entire Moon), and are reflected, or backscattered, by surface and subsurface rocks, providing data that can be manipulated into a realistic image. Knowledge of the surface and subsurface roughness helps elucidate the Moon’s history and provides information vital for future missions and geologic studies. Recently, for example, data from this project aided NASA’s LCROSS mission by providing high-resolution views of possible impact sites in craters near the north pole. The process by which this backscattered energy is collected and translated into an accurate picture of the Moon’s surface is complicated. A radar signal is transmitted toward the Moon from the 300-m telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. For 29 minutes, this pulsing beam follows a designated coordinate on the surface while the 100-m telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia samples the reflected signal, recording it as a string of voltage values. From these values, a matrix of time-delay and frequency measurements is derived that forms a crude image. The surreal image produced at this stage betrays the method of acquisition. The diffraction caused by the beam’s transmission from a circular aperture can be seen in the dark "nulls" and progressively dimmer rings surrounding the illuminated central oval. Moreover, during the 29 minutes the Moon and Earth are moving, a fact visible in the warped nature of the picture. At such a high resolution, it’s impossible for the mind to decode the convoluted effects of this motion in detail and thereby intuit the actual spatial layout of this portion of the surface. Specialized processing software is used to relate segments of the illuminated area to a latitude-longitude grid, in a "focusing" method based on quantitative models approximating the movement of the Moon in relation to the receiving telescope. The resultant focused image is trimmed to the boundary of the central beam - the bright, inner egg - and added to the mosaic. As we intuitively do with camera images, we can account for the effects of the data collection method on the unfocused radar image to obtain a high-resolution picture of the surface of the Moon consistent with our conception of reality.
By Ross Anderson, Physical Scientist, Smithsonian Center for Earth and Planetary Sciences
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