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Foundations of Visual Literacy: Historic Preservation and Image Management


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A paper presented at Visual Literacies: 5th Global Conference, Oxford, UK, 2011

A paper presented at Visual Literacies: 5th Global Conference, Oxford, UK, 2011

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  • 1. Foundations of Visual Literacy: Historic Preservation and Image Management Margot NoteAbstract Visual literacy refers to a number of competencies allowing people to decipheractions, objects, and symbols experienced in the environment and enjoyachievements of visual expression. These abilities are especially imperative in thefield of historic preservation, which is heavily reliant upon visual documentation.However, being able to ‘read’ architecture through visual materials remainschallenging. In order to understand the highest architectural achievements as wellas simple vernacular structures, those who manage images within cultural heritageinstitutions should be visually literate. Unfortunately, the training archivists,librarians, and other information professionals receive triumphs text over images,and often those charged with image management are impaired by visualanalphabetism. Images conveying built environments or cultural landscapes should not beviewed as decontextualised items, valued only for their aesthetic qualities.Additionally, the ambiguous connotations of images often lead to them beinginterpreted solely by their subject content. Instead, meaning is revealed byuncovering the context of the images. Information professionals should take intoaccount the historical, aesthetic, and cultural frames of reference, intendedfunctions, relationships and meanings related to conventions at the time and placeof construction, and the interests of the image creators. In regards to architecturalpreservation, the images, as a visual narrative, should impart knowledge about sitecontext, situating projects within their natural or urban landscapes, as well asdemonstrating the scope of intervention, including before, during, and aftercomparisons. This paper explores visual literacy in the historic preservation fieldthrough a postmodernist lens. This point of view welcomes a wide range ofcontextual information as the basis of understanding images and their multiplemeanings to advance the universal patrimony embodied in the world’s greatmonuments.Key Words: Architecture, conservation, historic preservation, image management,photographs, postmodernism, visual literacy. ***** Visual literacy is the capacity to analyse, interpret, and use images. Those whoare visually literate are interested in the production, circulation, and reception ofimages, which allows for their placement in a historical context and the evaluationof their integrity. Being visually literate assumes that one form of sense making
  • 2. 2 Foundations of Visual Literacy__________________________________________________________________does not override others; no single, privileged perspective exists, as images arepolysemic. Nor does visual literacy mean that someone can simply see; it is acultural construction, a learned and cultivated skill. Visual analysis is based on theawareness that a person creates an image, and the image’s subject, the thoughts andfeelings of its maker, the techniques used in generating the image, and the contextof its response inform the resulting picture. In an increasingly image-centred world, visual literacy is especially importantfor information professionals, 1 such as librarians, archivists, and other workerswho use information to advance institutional missions. Information professionalshave traditionally relied on text as the primary source of information about thepast. Education and training in archival, library, and information science has rarelyrequired course work in image analysis, and information professionals often lackskills to evaluate images effectively or have an awareness of their deficiency.Pacey remarks: There is of course a crucial difference between illiteracy and visual illiteracy. People who cannot read know that they cannot read. We all think we can ‘read’ images—but very probably we cannot. 2 Despite logocentrism, scholarly interests across disciplines have expanded,with a growing recognition that photographs transmit information ‘provid[ing]most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of thepresent.’ 3 Photographs ‘now constitute a thoroughly conventional evidentiaryresource’ as records of enduring value in their own right. 4 This paper explores visual literacy for information professionals when appliedto historic preservation image collections. Conservation treats damage caused bynatural processes and human actions and thwarts further deterioration usingtechnical and management methods. Historic preservation cannot be understood bytext alone; visuals are integral to recording the built environment.Stereophotogrammetry, as well as rectified, X-ray, and infrared photography,provide information to conservators, but this paper focuses on documentaryphotography, which blends technical ability and artistic skill to record and interprethistoric sites. Although I have previously written about image management in general, 5 thispaper arises from my experiences managing a visual collection depicting more than600 conservation projects in 90 countries over the past 45 years at WorldMonuments Fund, an international historic preservation organization. To bring theimages to a global audience, I have led an initiative to digitise thousands of imagesand create metadata for ARTstor, a digital image library in the areas of art,architecture, the humanities, and social sciences with a set of tools to view, present,and manage images for research and pedagogical purposes.
  • 3. Margot Note 3__________________________________________________________________ While the process has developed my visual literacy, I have found a postmodernapproach efficacious. Postmodernism undermines the assumptions of a positivistworldview and discounts its associated concepts of rationality and objectivity.Realizing that there is no ultimate truth but only versions of reality, being visuallyliterate with a postmodern outlook validates the perspectives of conservationists,photographers, and information professionals who manage heritage imagecollections. In the nascent years of photography, when long exposures and immobility wererequired, architecture was a frequent subject. As early as 1850, France’s HistoricMonuments Commission (Missions Héliographiques) used photography to surveyits architectural treasures. 6 Since that time, photographs have become understoodnot as neutral representations of the past, but constructions with historical,aesthetic, and cultural frames of reference with connotations that evolve inresponse to changing contexts. As a portal of interdisciplinary exploration, architecture mediates betweensocial values and built forms. Structures are frequently the only tangible evidenceof history, offering insights into past cultures and events. Heritage loci, spanningthe ancient to the modern, include archaeological sites; burial grounds; culturallandscapes; engineering and industrial works; historic city centres; and, civic,commercial, military, religious, and residential buildings. Cultural significance -the aesthetic, historic, scientific, social, and spiritual values of past, present, andfuture generations - embodies places, their records, and their uses andassociations. 7As symbols of the past, locations are instilled with the values of thecommunities for whom such places have meaning. Different stakeholders ascribediverse significance to the monuments, producing contrary accounts. Preservationists assay these site interpretations, determining what the buildingsrepresent related to symbolic qualities, memories, and beliefs. Conservationists areguardians of the past, yet they shape the future, as they research, write, andadminister historic significance. The monuments’ ages, uniqueness, associationswith people or events, technological qualities, or documentary potential determinehistorical importance. 8 Historic value assessment considers if locationsdemonstrate past customs, philosophies, or systems that are important inunderstanding historical evolution. Significance is greater where evidence survivesin situ or where the settings are largely intact than where they have been changed. Conservationists determine the most accurate period in a site’s history topreserve, often based on visual information provided by the ‘photographed past.’ 9Heritage sites transform throughout history, and photographs may only capture amoment in time. Ironically, some ancient buildings may be: restored to a condition captured by a recording medium - photography - that is much younger than they are, and that can only reveal their condition during the span of its own relatively
  • 4. 4 Foundations of Visual Literacy__________________________________________________________________ recent history….The implication is that old images have somehow captured things in their ‘right’ condition, and that they therefore contain some sort of standards by which the present can be evaluated, and perhaps even made to conform. 10Photography’s power - and danger - is its capacity to affix images to the historicalrecord and instil agelessness in them. The visually literate understand thatphotographs seem ‘more real, more right, more true’ than monuments, but they arenot. 11 To ‘get the picture’, that is, to interpret what is shown in photographs,information professionals represent sites that they have never visited before.Architecture, as a spatial experience of movement and scale, cannot be capturedaccurately in a two-dimensional photograph. Rather than the architecture itself,most viewers examine images, which act as representations, ‘a mediatedrelationship using signs or symbols between the maker and the viewer of oneobject that stands for another.’ 12 Photography allows architectural features to bestudied better than in person, where the scale and wealth of details overwhelm theeye. Zooming in permits the observation of minutiae that cannot be seen on site. Photographic documentation of heritage sites centres on the continuation ofdesign and construction knowledge, the preservation of material and aestheticheritage, and the promulgation of culture, as well as research, interpretation, andeducation. Images record existing conditions, aid in evaluation report and drawingpreparation, and serve as records for features that may become destroyed ordamaged. Photographs also document deterioration that is difficult to indicate indrawings, such as cracks and erosion. Before and after photographs demonstratethe project’s achievements, while photographs taken during intervention capturemoments in the conservation process. Photographers frame their images from almost infinite perspectives, and only afraction of what constitutes a historic site can be represented in one photograph - orone hundred. Photographs capture cultural, natural, or landscape features,including buildings, site context, spatial relationships, construction techniques andmethods, architectural details, materials, circulation patterns, or special functions,among other choices. Shots can be aerial, panoramic, long-, mid-, or short-range;interior or exterior; illuminated or shadowed. Some photographs are standard front,rear, and side elevations, while others reveal neoteric views. Photographers may beprofessionals who capture dramatic evocations of the built environment or projectmanagers who focus on common conservation issues, such as foundation cracks orfaçade damage. Akin to conservators and photographers, information professionals interpretphotographic records, understanding that photographs are ‘not a facsimile of totalpast scenes and events, but only a partial reflection of past reality.’ 13 Unlike texts,image collections have no order by which they can be understood or titles by which
  • 5. Margot Note 5__________________________________________________________________they can be described. Image description is ‘idiosyncratic, knowledge-intensive,and time consuming,’ 14 because ‘the very characteristics that make [images]valuable also make them difficult to describe.’ 15 Burgin writes that ‘theintelligibility of the photograph is no simple thing; photographs are texts inscribedin terms of what we may call “photographic discourse.”’ 16 Since photographsrepresent an ‘insoluble historiographic challenge’, information professionals readvisual texts, striving to document their contextual relationships, narratives, andmulti-provenancial characteristics. 17 Visually literate information professionals appreciate levels of pictoricengagement, which fall under many labels. Barthes distinguishes betweendenotative and connotative. 18 Denotative is the literal meaning of the image.Connotative aspects display visual codes, reflecting signification within theculture. Another way to describe Barthes’ perspective would be ‘ofness’, what animage objectively represents, and ‘aboutness’, what it subjectively represents.Panofsky identifies three levels of meaning: preiconography, iconography, andiconology. 19 Preiconologocial description identifies the objects and eventsrepresented in the image, whereas iconographical analysis involves conventionalmeaning requiring cultural familiarity. Iconology is the intrinsic meaning of thework. Kaplan and Mifflin also describe three similar levels: superficial, concrete,and abstract. 20 Knowledge of the degrees of meaning provides for better visualliteracy, as interpreting image significance requires familiarity with cultural codesin a postmodern milieu. To understand an image, ‘it is essential to know exactly where it was created,in the framework of what process, to what end, for whom…and how it came intoour hands.’ 21 Information professionals should explore the photographic intent ‘notbecause it provides the only way of interpreting an image, but because it providesone possible starting point for a more complicated reading of a picture.’ 22Appreciating photographic value looks beyond content to various contextualfactors that endow significance. The photograph’s format, process, and size convey meaning. The image’sphysicality, ‘prescribed by prevailing technology, determines what can bephotographed, how it can be displayed or published, how it can be encountered byothers, how it can circulate through public culture.’ 23 Most collections containanalogue, digitised, and born-digital images, whose formats inform visual literacy.For example, some photographic formats were popular during specific years,which identify their date range. Of analogue formats, 35-mm slides provide the most contextual informationbecause their frames encourage labelling. Since slides were used in lectures,information was recorded on them to aid the speaker’s memory. Conversely,photographic prints frequently lack identifying information because writing onthem or applying labels can be damaging.
  • 6. 6 Foundations of Visual Literacy__________________________________________________________________ To fulfill their research potential and be reproducible for publications andexhibits, photographs should have ‘proper focus to render detail, exposure thatpreserves the full range of tonal contrast, clarity, satisfactory composition and be ingood physical condition’ - in short, be aesthetically appealing. 24 Depth of field,point of view, rhythm, colour balance, and tonal range must be evaluated.Aesthetics are visual grammar: ‘a well-composed picture makes the author’s pointmore forcefully than a poorly framed image. The rules of composition, like therules of grammar, improve the final product.’ 25 Visually literate informationprofessionals choose images that convey the maximum amount of informationabout architectural details, yet are composed beautifully. By constructing sequences throughout conservation and determining adequatesite coverage from existing photographs, information professionals hone theirvisual literacy. Information about images are gleaned from progress reports, projectmanager memorandum, similar photograph, and other material. Interpretation is needed because ‘existing captions are often incomplete,inaccurate, deliberately distorted or irrelevant.’ 26 Photographs frequently entercultural heritage collections without captions, because the photographer, usuallythe project manager, knew their content and context and saw no need to recordthem for posterity. ‘Even when photographs have extensive captions…researchmay be necessary to verify their general accuracy by fact checking a sample…withthe same scrutiny given to any primary resource material.’ 27 Due to historicpreservation’s global scope, captions may be in another language or written bynon-native speakers. Conservation terminology confuses language conversionprogrammes, and human translation may be required. Scrutiny of the images reveals details to formulate captions. Informationprofessionals may decipher signs, posters, numerals, and other clues. Sometimes,research enhances description, although the findings should be confirmed withmultiple citations. Captions should denote information not readily apparent. For example,captions such as ‘façade’, ‘general interior’, or ‘exterior detail’ should be replacedrespectively with ‘northern façade with fire damage’, ‘Great Hall interior, lookingsouth, post-conservation’, or ‘east exterior wall with marble inlay detail’. Captionscan identify the image elements and the direction from which the photograph wastaken or supply an extensive interpretation of what was photographed and howvarious elements interrelate. Description for heritage sites should include site names and locations, names ofthe photographers and organizations responsible for the documentation, dates, andcaptions. Other elements may include item titles, image measurements,photographic processes, collection titles, identification numbers, and citations. 28Data should be captured at the most granular level. For example, location shouldinclude country, region, city, and address; dates should include day, month, andyear.
  • 7. Margot Note 7__________________________________________________________________ For homogeneous descriptions, I use a metadata schema adapted from VRACore 4.0, a data standard for the description of works of visual culture as well asthe images that document them. 29 For architectural terminology, I consult the Art& Architecture Thesaurus, a structured vocabulary created to improve access toinformation about art, architecture, and material culture. 30 Although site featuresmay have been called different names throughout a monument’s history, consistentnaming conventions should be used. Information professionals should also record provenance, the person, agency,or office that created, acquired, used, and retained the images in the course of theirwork. Knowing who took the photographs, when, and why is essential tounderstanding the image’s content and the importance of the subject depicted. Building on a foundation of visual literacy to document heritage sites,information professionals should choose images that address site context, such asthe heritage curtilage. Collections should include interiors and exteriors whenappropriate and details illustrating character-defining features. For heritage sitesundergoing conservation, preservation issues should be recorded. Photographs withpeople demonstrate site use, scale, and community significance that cannot beconveyed through sterile façades. When different photographers document thesame site, the quality varies; information professionals should curate a uniformimage collection that complements associated site narratives and drawings. Theimages should be placed in sequence and keyed to site plans illustrating thelocations and directions of the photographic views. Conservation-based image collections represent heritage sites differentlydepending on the purpose of the intervention as factors change with each project;some images document narrow physical interventions, while others provide sitecontext. Historic architecture images function both as part of a series and asindividual units. They should be compelling as unique images, but they should alsotell a narrative about the project and the conservationists’ role in it. Taken as aseries, the images impart an understanding of site context, situating the projectwithin its landscape. The sequence also demonstrates the scope of intervention,such as the number of conserved buildings and, to the extent possible, the results ofthe conservation, including before, during, and after comparisons. For certainprojects, including efforts to preserve specific features, identifying theconservation stage is critical. For others, such as efforts to improve sitemanagement or sustainable tourism, identifiers are less important. An escalating demand for architectonic images makes users seek photographymore readily than ever before. Through a contextual approach, informationprofessionals provide intellectual and physical access to images. Improving visualliteracy for information professionals reveals the marvels of places that speak oftheir ingenuity, aspiration, and achievement across time, geography, and culturalboundaries. As evidence of humanity’s finest expression, historic structures
  • 8. 8 Foundations of Visual Literacy__________________________________________________________________connect generations, representing the continuity of humankind and the cumulativeresult of our monumental endeavours. Notes1 I use the phrase information professionals, rather than archivists, librarians, orcurators, because the management of images affects diverse institutions, such asacademic research libraries; historical societies; natural history collections; specialcollections libraries; commercial archives; and local, municipal, state, and federalrecords offices. Thus, job titles for those that manage image collections varywidely.2 Phillip Pacey, ‘Information Technology and the Universal Availability ofImages’, IFLA Journal 9, no. 3 (1983): 233.3 Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977), 4.4 James W. Cook, ‘Seeing the Visual in U.S. History’, Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (2008): 432.5 Margot Note, Managing Image Collections: A Practical Guide (Oxford:Chandos, 2011).6 Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History (Upper Saddle River, NJ:Prentice Hall, 2011), 53.7 Marta de la Torre, ed., Assessing the Values of Cultural Heritage (Los Angeles:The Getty Conservation Institute, 2002).8 Ibid.9 Derek Bousé, ‘Restoring the Photographed Past’, The Public Historian 24, no. 2(2002): 10.10 Ibid.11 Ibid., 11.12 W. J. T. Mitchell, ‘Representation’, in Critical Terms for Literary Study, eds.Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1995), 11.13 Elisabeth Kaplan and Jeffrey Mifflin, ‘“Mind and Sight”: Visual Literacy and theArchivist’, in American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice, ed.Randall C. Jimerson (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2000), 85.14 Claire Dannenbaum, ‘Seeing the Big Picture: Integrating Visual Resources forArt Libraries’, Art Documentation 27, no. 1 (2008): 16.15 Sara Shatford, ‘Describing a Picture: A Thousand Words are Seldom CostEffective’, Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 4, no. 4 (1984): 14.16 Victor Burgin, Thinking Photography (London: Macmillan, 1982), 144.17 Geoffrey Batchen, ‘Camera Lucida: Another Little History of Photography’, inThe Meaning of Photography, eds. Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson (NewHaven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 76.
  • 9. Margot Note 9__________________________________________________________________18 Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text (London: Fontana, 1977).19 Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of theRenaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939).20 Kaplan and Mifflin, “Mind and Sight.”21 Michel Duchein, ‘Theoretical Principles and Practical Problems of Respect desFonds in Archival Science’, Archivaria 16 (1983): 67.22 Martha A. Sandweiss, ‘Image and Artifact: The Photograph as Evidence in theDigital Age’, Journal of American History 94, no. 1 (2007): 194.23 Idid.,197.24 Cilla Ballard and Rodney Teakle, ‘Seizing the Light: The Appraisal ofPhotographs’, Archives and Manuscripts 19, no. 1 (1991): 47.25 Frank Boles, Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts (Chicago:Society of American Archivists, 2005), 133.26 Richard J. Huyda, ‘Photographs and Archives in Canada’, Archivaria 5 (1977):10.27 Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Diane Vogt-O’Connor, Photographs: ArchivalCare and Management (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2008), 77n15.28 Ibid., 288.29 For more information, see For more information, see BibliographyBallard, Cilla and Rodney Teakle. ‘Seizing the Light: The Appraisal ofPhotographs’. Archives and Manuscripts 19, no. 1 (1991): 43–9.Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. London: Fontana, 1977.Batchen, Geoffrey. ‘Camera Lucida: Another Little History of Photography’. InThe Meaning of Photography, edited by Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson, 76–91.New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.Boles, Frank. Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago:Society of American Archivists, 2005.Bousé, Derek. ‘Restoring the Photographed Past’. The Public Historian 24, no. 2(2002): 9-40.Burgin, Victor. Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan, 1982.
  • 10. 10 Foundations of Visual Literacy__________________________________________________________________Cook, James W. ‘Seeing the Visual in U.S. History’. Journal of American History95, no. 2 (2008): 432-41.Dannenbaum, Claire. ‘Seeing the Big Picture: Integrating Visual Resources forArt Libraries’. Art Documentation 27, no. 1 (2008): 13– la Torre, Marta, ed. Assessing the Values of Cultural Heritage. Los Angeles:The Getty Conservation Institute, 2002.Duchein, Michel. ‘Theoretical Principles and Practical Problems of Respect desFonds in Archival Science’. Archivaria 16 (1983): 64-82.Huyda, Richard J. ‘Photographs and Archives in Canada’. Archivaria 5 (1977): 3–16.Kaplan, Elisabeth and Jeffrey Mifflin. ‘“Mind and Sight”: Visual Literacy and theArchivist’. In American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice, editedby Randall C. Jimerson, 73-97. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2000.Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. Upper Saddle River, NJ:Prentice Hall, 2011.Mitchell, W. J. T. ‘Representation’. In Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited byFrank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, 11-22. Chicago: University ofChicago Press, 1995.Pacey, Phillip. ‘Information Technology and the Universal Availability of Images’.IFLA Journal 9, no. 3 (1983): 230-5.Panofsky, Erwin. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of theRenaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1939.Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn and Diane Vogt-O’Connor. Photographs: Archival Careand Management. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2008.Sandweiss, Martha A. ‘Image and Artifact: The Photograph as Evidence in theDigital Age’. Journal of American History 94, no. 1 (2007): 193-202.
  • 11. Margot Note 11__________________________________________________________________Shatford, Sara. ‘Describing a Picture: A Thousand Words are Seldom CostEffective’. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 4, no. 4 (1984): 13–30.Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.Margot Note holds a Master’s in History from Sarah Lawrence College, aMaster’s in Library and Information Science, and a Post-Master’s Certificate inArchives and Records Management, both from Drexel University. She is aCertified Archivist based in New York and is the Director of Archives andInformation Management at World Monuments Fund, an international historicpreservation organization.