Image Acquisition (Art History)

Turning to what is perhaps the most significant application of technology to art historical research, the processes of image capture and storage are potentially where the largest gains could be observed in relation to current practice. The now established practice of gathering digital materials from a variety of unmediated sources has led to a great deal of discussion about rights management issues, metadata incompatibility, sustainability and archival robustness. These are issues that need to be tackled by the whole community and a great deal of work is being put into proposing solutions to these problems. At the level of the individual researcher however, it is clear that the expedient and non-technical gathering of images, many of them low resolution, and poorly focused with uncertain claims to being a true representation of the object, have a limiting effect on research and undermine the whole discipline.

One of the ways that technology should be able to make a decisive impact on the study of the visual arts is by allowing researchers minute and forensic access to primary materials in ways that are non-destructive and which complement other less materials-based approaches to interpretation. It will be contentious for some art historians that such focus should be placed on the physical properties of the object but it is a fact that this is the area where technology will operate most effectively.

Fig.4  DIAMM mobile studio (with kind permission of DIAMM project)Fig.4 DIAMM mobile studio (with kind permission of DIAMM project)

One of the objectives of the DIAMM project is to take very high resolution images of medieval music scores with the best portable equipment available. This results in very sharply focused images that can support high magnification using a mobile studio that can be setup very quickly in any location (see fig.4). Though the techniques used are exemplary (technical detail can be found on the DIAMM website - they are not unusual in the context of digital photographic practice. What this approach really provides is a springboard for what else can be achieved by dealing with the object in this meticulous way.

One of the areas that DIAMM and the Project Manager, Julia Craig-McFeely in particular, has become concerned with is the process of digital restoration. During a Methods Network funded workshop, participants were shown a variety of processes that are used to decipher damaged documents, some of which were completely illegible prior to undergoing this kind of analysis. Using advanced features in Adobe Photoshop, elements of the scores have been made visible and have been transformed whilst the original remains untouched in whichever archive it rests, thereby advancing scholarship, promoting access and providing an archival record of a fragile object.

Fig.5  Before and after digital restoration (with kind permission of DIAMM project)Fig.5 Before and after digital restoration (with kind permission of DIAMM project)

The DIAMM project has also extensively used ultra-violet photography to obtain data about the surface of the manuscripts that may not be visible using the visible spectrum. The area of multi-spectral photography and techniques involving variable light sources is potentially an extremely useful tool for art historians, and one that even some conservators have conceded is under-utilised. An easel painting will typically be made up of a number of layers, all of which may reveal something of the history of the object and may also provide clues to how the object has been damaged, altered, conserved or recycled in the course of its lifetime. The critical factor that cuts across nearly all approaches to the study of art history is that the scholar needs to know to what extent the object (or the part of the object) that they are discussing has integrity as an intentional product of artistic practice and in this respect, technology can be of enormous assistance.

Fig.6  Layers of a typical easel paintingFig.6 Layers of a typical easel painting

The use of short wavelength ultra-violet light causes the surface of the object to fluoresce giving aged resinous varnishes a green-yellow appearance whilst retouched sections show up as lavender or purple. New surface features are black and start to go lavender as they age whilst interruptions in fluorescence are usually areas where the varnish has been removed.

Long wavelength infra-red light is more penetrative and is good at picking up traces of carbon on light ground so is particularly effective at showing underdrawing beneath painted layers. Other techniques familiar from the realm of medicine include radiography and MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanning but the key issue from a digital perspective is that the image output from most of these techniques is ideally suited to digital image capture.

Andrew Prescott from the University of Sheffield and Meg Twycross from Lancaster University are also pursuing research into the use of multi-spectral imaging and Prescott points out that whilst the Video Spectral Comparator, a commercially available tool, has been available in research libraries for nearly thirty years and has been used extensively for analysing manuscripts, there has been insufficient discussion amongst the arts and humanities community more generally about how far this technology could assist with advancing research.

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