Thursday, June 5, 2008
Review of Structures of Image Collections: From Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc to Flickr
My review of Structures of Image Collections: From Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc to Flickr by
Howard F. Greisdorf and Brian C. O’Connor (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2008).
Published in American Archivist, 71(2), Fall/Winter 2008.
“What’s the use?” concludes Structures of Image Collections: From Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc to Flickr. Rather than an idiom of anguish, the phrase indicates that the purpose of an image in a structured collection should provide maximum usefulness to the viewer. Concepts for image collection structuring are a rich source of theoretical discourse and debate, state authors Howard F. Greisdorf, Director of Training at UniFocus in Carollton, Texas, and Brian C. O’Connor, a Library and Information Science professor at the University of North Texas. Using interdisciplinary theories and years of experience in image production, consulting, and academic research, Greisdorf and O’Connor outline image characteristics, describe applications, and explore image collection structures, based on cultural methods and historical examples. They argue that language-based image management should be reconceived with other practices to make collections more accessible to diverse users.
The oldest known cave paintings in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, France, and the photo-sharing website Flickr serve as the past and present of structured image collections. Both collections are digital, either by fingers across clay or by computer manipulation. The authors assert, “We are at once linked from twenty-first-century digital images to the digital images of our ancestors, reminded that the computer-based use of the term is anchored in our very physical nature and reminded that construction of images is a purposeful act.” Capturing an image is “photocutionary behavior,” a phrase coined by the authors, based on linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin’s illocutionary speech acts. Austin’s work can be summarized by stating, “to say something is to do something.” When our ancestors depicted stallions on cave walls or when we snap pictures with camera phones, each image executes a function. Subsequent photocutionary behaviors by collectors or viewers also purposefully utilize images.
Images are as much perception (how we see) as conception (how we think). Images “induce humans to emit pheromones of meaning,” derived from both the semiotic elements in the image and the personal, etymological, locative, experiential, and emotional perspectives of viewers. Depending on their roles, image creators, collectors, and viewers create a “mental triumvirate” of meaningful words. The creator has a purpose for generating images; the collector seeks images to complete a function; and the viewer has a use for browsing images. These expressions of visual engagement, formed by the duality of perception and conception, structure an image collection. Collectors can gain insight from embracing the perspectives of image creators and viewers, because collection structure will affect the appearances derived from individual viewers.
The authors argue that, “current frameworks … tend to promote a measure of forced conformity that is not necessarily a stable characteristic of visual experience.” Language application can introduce shifting semantic patterns among images. Cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch states that when people name an object in an image, they rely on cues from the image to place the object in a basic, subordinate, or superordinate level. This knowledge hierarchy is similar to art historian Erwin Panofsky’s preiconographic, iconographic, and iconology levels and traditional subject-headings like broad term, near term, and related term. When language applications change, image structures and relationships transform. As a result, the use of titles, descriptions, and keywords in image retrieval requires reinterpretation, since language cannot fully encapsulate an image’s meaning. As Greisdorf and O’Connor state, “The efficacy of [evocative] words for achieving efficient and effective image collection structure…resides with the nature of language, not the nature of vision.”
Image collection structure has conventionally been based on the organizing authority of the collector and the cognitive authority of the viewer, which can be incongruent. Most collections are structured around the experience of looking at something, rather than looking for something, which entails greater cognitive effort. Another way to describe this perspective on visual engagement would be the “ofness” and “aboutness” of an image. “Ofness” is what an image objectively represents, as in Rosch’s basic level and Panofsky’s iconographic level, whereas “aboutness” is what it subjectively represents. For example, museums often use “ofness” groupings to organize their collections into categories of art movement, style, or artist rather than ascribed viewer “aboutness” meanings such as landscapes, heroic acts, or the color blue. The authors question whether the visual experience of looking at something is always enhanced by knowing about the image. Given that the purpose of a structured collection is to satisfy user needs, categorizing by “aboutness” can be just as helpful as “ofness:” the inexperienced viewer has as much right to define what they see as the professional viewer.
The authors note the limits of current practices for structuring image collections by lists, indexes, directories, catalogs, thesauri, taxonomies, ontologies, typologies, metadata, templates, or topic maps. Retrieval systems and digital asset management (DAM) software are based on language, particularly keywords, because words are extractable from documents. For images, there is no language to extract, only language to apply. Keywords provide content-based access points to images because they label the objects being photographed. To a lesser extent, they can also be concept-based, detailing an image’s features, attributes, and characteristics. Rather than designing more effective language-based algorithms, retrieval system designers should reinterpret keyword searches based on information-seeking behavior, cognition, and memory. Newer approaches like tagging and algorithmic or heuristic browsing provide more search versatility. Browsing based on both content and concept and on images alone remains on the edge of discovery.
Online collections offer structuring inventiveness because digital images can belong to multiple categories simultaneously, whereas physical images cannot. Collections have evolved from mutually exclusive categories, often arranged in hierarchies, to digital images with any number of labels, allowing collectors to focus on inter-relationships and cognition. Greisdorf and O’Connor should have more fully explored the possibilities of this emerging structure, using Flickr and similar sites as examples. With online collections, folksonomy, or social tagging, allows viewers to apply semantic keywords to images, which could cultivate deeper semantic associations between “ofness” and “aboutness” categories.
The back cover states, “Image collections can no longer be the result of ad hoc processes rooted in antiquated methodologies.” Language-based approaches and analog collections are time-tested if limiting, but not antediluvian. Digital collections offer better access to users with the potential of broadening their visual experiences. However, it is too soon to know digital preservation challenges—what may be an excellent digital collection today can become inaccessible or corrupted tomorrow.
The book covers theories discussed in Jacques Burzun’s The Use and Abuse of Art, James Elkins’ The Object Stares Back, E. H. Gombrich’s The Uses of Images, and John Gilmour’s Picturing the World. However, Greisdorf and O’Connor concentrate on digital-age photographic images, in part because billions are created daily with digital cameras. In 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote of the daguerreotype: “It has become such an everyday matter with us, that we forget its miraculous nature, as we forget that of the sun itself, to which we owe the creations of our new art.” Today, the ability to create and share photos instantaneously has made it a routine, but under-analyzed process. This ease of construction is demonstrated in the book itself with the authors’ own black and white photos and illustrations that express their concepts elegantly.
Structures of Image Collections: From Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc to Flickr is recommended for information professionals who regularly engage with image collections, as well as those who are creating or restructuring a collection and need a foundation of image management principles. Although many of the concepts are familiar to those with art history backgrounds, naïve readers may have intuitively experienced the theories without their explicit expression. Some archivists may be disappointed in how the text expounds on the theoretical problems of language-based structures without offering alternative best practices, only the hope that the future portends for better image management and access.