Still a problem: images and art history in 2018

Rewarding close looking

We wouldn’t ask students to read an outdated translation of Dante or to read the Inferno with one-quarter of the words missing. Students would obviously be short changed, their sense of the beauty of Dante’s poetry would be obscured. They might come away wondering what all the fuss was about, why the late medieval Italian poet was worth reading. And yet, because of the odd ecosystem in which cultural heritage images exist today, this is essentially what art history instructors and their students have been facing. We continually ask our students to look closely, but we often don’t have the means to provide them with reproductions that reward that close looking.

Which detail would you rather learn from?

Comparison of Duccio images

Duccio, Rucellai Madonna, detail, Smarthistory photo left (Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), Artstor right

There was a time (not long ago) when we had little choice. We used slides taken from book reproductions, and we had the slides that our colleagues took during a research trip, or while on vacation and then generously shared with the department’s slide library. But now we have options — perhaps too many. We have the results of a Google image search (which often turn up the never-ending loop that is Pinterest), Artstor, museum websites, the Google Art Project, Flickr, academic image libraries, and other resources. Yet even with all these options, we find that the images that are available to art history instructors and their students, even of the most canonical material, are often of such poor quality, it is like reading Dante with one-quarter of the words missing.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Rucellai Madonna. Click links for full size images: left to right: Smarthistory, Google Art Project, Wikimedia Italy, Artstor* These are the highest quality images we could find on the web as of November 2, 2018.

Click these links to compare at full size: Duccio, Rucellai Madonna. Left to right: Smarthistory, Google Art Project, Wikimedia Italy, Artstor

The promise of the digital images for the art history classroom and where we are now

Jamb figures, Royal Portal, Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral, photo: Steven Zucker CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Jamb figures, Royal Portal, Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral (photo: Steven Zucker CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

We remember the transformative moment when we purchased our department’s first digital image set and projected one of them — the jamb sculptures on the west façade of Chartres — in a darkened art history classroom. This was 2004, the year Kodak announced that they would no longer manufacture slide projectors. There was no comparison; the digital image was drop-dead gorgeous. A Google search in those days yielded very little in terms of art history images (and Artstor was just coming online), hence the need for the department to purchase images (and set up a database for distribution). As a result, Smarthistory’s earliest videos used just a handful of images—often of poor quality—that was all that was available copyright and license free. Similar compromises have also continued to plague classroom instruction.

Too often we are still using poor quality, lifeless images that we project in the classroom with Powerpoint. We think we can do better. We wanted to offer a few examples.

Better art history images

The images of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna and Masaccio’s Holy Trinity featured in this blog post were taken on a recent Smarthistory trip to Florence and Rome. When we returned we wondered how the photographs we took compared with available images. So, we’ve compared them here with the best images we could find on the web (including Artstor, Flickr, Google Art Project, Wikimedia, and the museums’ own websites). Thanks to recent changes in regulations which allow photographs for educational use in places like the Uffizi and Santa Maria Novella, we took photographs of virtually every canonical image we saw (unfortunately, the treasury in Saint Peter’s basilica still won’t allow photography so we continue to make do with the cast of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus in the Pio-Christian Museum, even though it is a pale shadow of the original).

Click for full size images: left to right: Smarthistory, Artstor*, Wikimedia, Flickr These are the highest quality images that we could find and that are currently available on the web (as of November 2, 2018).

Left to right: Smarthistory, Artstor*, Wikimedia, Flickr. These are the highest quality images that we could find and that are currently available on the web (as of November 2, 2018).

Recently, we’ve made similarly high-quality, photoshopped images available of many French and English Gothic churches, and of the Parthenon sculptures and the Acropolis (among thousands of others). We make an effort to photograph the context that a work of art is in—whether that’s an archaeological site, museum or church, and to photograph the original location (if the work is no longer in-situ). So, for example, recent research on the original location of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna (see George R. Bent, Public Painting and Visual Culture in Early Republican Florence, Cambridge University Press, 2016, p. 67) suggests that the large panel was installed on a wall, perhaps in the right transept of Santa Maria Novella—between the Rucellai Chapel and the chapel dedicated to Saint Gregory—where the laity entered the church in the late 13th century. When we consider this, and the patron of the panel—the confraternity that sung hymns in praise of the Virgin Mary—and show the work in context to our students, we move beyond formal analysis and issues of style to the life of the people of Florence during the trecento.

Right transept, Santa Maria Novella, Filippo Strozzi Chapel left, Bardi Chapel (Gregory) center, Rucellai Chapel under scaffolding

Possible original location of the Rucellai Madonna, right transept, Santa Maria Novella, Filippo Strozzi Chapel left, Bardi Chapel (Gregory) center, Rucellai Chapel under scaffolding

Now, as we all know, photographs are not ideal documents. Lighting, lens, shutter speed and f-stop all play a role, and so Smarthistory’s images have been photoshopped with the goal of creating an honest representation of the experience of viewing the work of art in person. For paintings, we currently use a Sony RX1r because of its full-frame light sensor and Zeiss lens, and because it’s small enough to fit in a jacket pocket. We look forward to further advances in cameras and to being able to offer students even better images—all so that they can fall in love with art, even if they are thousands of miles away from the objects they are studying. Correcting photographs of works of art to more accurately portray a work of art is now an essential skill we should be teaching art history graduate students.

Where you can find Smarthistory images

Smarthistory currently offers 7,932 high-resolution images—many canonical. All are offered for free and can be downloaded from Flickr. These images have been viewed more than 12 million times by teachers and learners. But we still have a lot of work to do. Too many of Smarthistory’s older videos and essays used poor-quality images out of necessity. We have already begun to replace that older content with breathtakingly beautiful photographs, but we can’t do it alone.

Let’s work together to create and share the highest quality images for our students so that the beauty and power of the objects we study can awe them. If you have high-quality images, post them with a Creative Commons license with complete captions, and please submit them to the Smarthistory Flickr group. If you need a little help taking photos or editing them, please see our video creation guide, it has a how-to photography section. As with Smarthistory generally, if we band together, we can demonstrate the tremendous value of our discipline.

Finally, if you appreciate what Smarthistory does, please give what you can to help make the highest-quality art history resources available to everyone—for free. Donate here.

Masaccio, Holy Trinity with the Virgin and Saint John, detail with Trinity, photo: Steven Zucker CC BY-NC-SA 2.

Masaccio, Holy Trinity with the Virgin and Saint John, detail with Trinity (photo: Steven Zucker CC BY-NC-SA 2.)

Smarthistory is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit consortium dedicated to making the global history of art accessible to everyone. Learn more about Smarthistory here.

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