Digital Scholarship Lab opens up project that makes stunning photos discoverable

May 24, 2022

RESEARCH & INNOVATION

Lauren Tilton sees immense storytelling potential in historic images. But the trick is being able to find them.

“Photography offers a really powerful lens into the past,” the associate professor of digital humanities and Photogrammar director said. “We can literally see a moment in time that precedes us.”

Photogrammar, an open-source digital project Tilton created with associate professor of statistics Taylor Arnold, invites users to explore an enormous collection of U.S. photographs from the Great Depression and World War II by location, time, and photographer. Recently the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the Photogrammar team a $325,000 grant to expand their software.

“We’re imagining that cultural heritage institutions, researchers, and students in a classroom might want to spin up a Photogrammar version for the collection of their choice,” Tilton explained.

In 2010, Tilton was a graduate student at Yale doing a public humanities project mapping a massive, popular Library of Congress photo collection. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Historic Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and later the Office of War Information (OWI), sent photographers including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and Gordon Parks to gather visual evidence supporting the New Deal and a country ready for war.

These photographers ultimately created an incredible archive of American life. Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” is just one of the collection’s 170,000 preserved and digitized photos, but few people were digging into the full trove through loc.gov’s search box. Tilton wanted to change that.

She connected with Arnold, a statistics doctoral candidate at the time, and they worked on creating a dynamic way to explore the images. “We broke Google Maps,” Tilton admitted. The collection was just too big. So the duo used computational methods and data visualization to develop their own open-source platform instead. Since Photogrammar’s 2014 release, the team grew and added features such as oral histories from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

Tilton and Arnold joined UR’s faculty in 2016, and the project has continued to evolve with their guidance.

The NEH grant supports Photogrammar Visualization Software for a broader audience. One collection the team is using to ensure the platform works for a variety of research applications contains civil rights-era photographs from 1965 to 1968 in Montgomery, Alabama. Others contain images of ancient coins and Medieval manuscripts. The team aims to make the software available in two years.

Last year Tilton’s passion for open-source images pulled her in an unexpected direction. Since 2008, history buff Barbara Redmon regularly posted FSA-OWI collection images that caught her interest to the Twitter account Depression Era Photos. But in 2021 she shared publicly that she needed to go into hospice and planned to sunset the account.

“A few of us reached out and said we lead the Photogrammar project, we think this is a really great connection, and we find these photos as compelling and informative and moving as you do,” Tilton remembered. Redmon agreed to hand off the account to the team. She passed away last August.

Her legacy continues. The account has more than 40,000 followers and University of Richmond students have been helping guide it. Erin Lee and Andrew Murphy, both 2022 grads, worked with Tilton to select which photographs to post as part of an independent study.

The account’s pinned tweet thanking Redmon features a woman riveting a rib on a tank in 1942. “That photo was deeply intentional,” Tilton said. “She handed us the riveter to keep riveting.”