Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Huntington Archive Black and White Photograph Collection of Asian Art (1969-1984)

This collection of black and white photographs taken by Susan and John Huntington from 1969 to 1984 is a mixed bag. The collection's content is cool, and it is apparent from the intense level of metadata on each object and the quality of the images that the National Endowment of the Humanities grant funding received by the project supported it well. However, the functioning of the site is very clunky and not entirely useful in some respects, and while there is a lot of data on each object, there is very little information about the collection as a whole of the decisions that went into making it.

1. Collection Principles
The opening page for the digital archive of photography taken in South Asia of Buddhist and Hindu religious art, sculpture and monuments gives some background on the collection, including who the photographers were, when they took the photos, in which countries they photographed, and so on. It also notes that the project was funded by an NEH grant and that the Huntington Archive is in a consortium with Ohio State, who played a major role in the project. The page notes that 30,000 images are included in the digital collection, but says nothing about how that number relates to the physical collection of photographs or how selection decisions were made. Further, on the search page, there is a short note that tells that the number of hits returned for a search denotes the number of digital images available to the public, as not all images are available for public use, but says nothing more about how many or why. There is a rather lengthy paragraph at the bottom of the page about rights for the collection.

2. Objects
The images are searchable by entering descriptive terms in the search box, and browseable by
iconography, original location, current location, material type, dynasty/period, and religious category. There is very detailed information on the search page for optimizing searches, including how to do diacritic-format spelling for Sanskrit words, which is nice. One really annoying thing is that there seems to be no good way besides hit "back" over and over to get from a results page to the search page again. Another problem, and the collection addresses this with apologies written out all around, is that the image files are big, and they take a long time to load. I have decent internet connection and usually never encounter a problem with images, but even for me they took a pretty long time. Once they are open, though, they are pretty awesome. You can select from tabs above the image a larger or smaller size to view and a smaller or larger image to use for zooming. You can zoom really super close and still have the image come across totally clear. The number of images is pretty staggering, and in order to browse you would have to be somewhat familiar with Buddhist, Hindu, Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi, and/or Telugu terms or you will be clicking around blindly. There are also no thumbnails on the browsing page, just lists of terms that are links, which is a problem, but if you actually enter a search term in the box, your results appear as thumbnails.

3. Metadata
This collection has a strength in metadata for individual objects. On one image, for instance, the fields Country, Site Name, Monument, Alternate Name, Subject of Photo, Photo Orientation, Dynasty/Period, Date, Material, Dimensions, Current Location, Copyright Holder, Photo Year, and Scan Number all appear. On others, even the asana (body position, as in yogic systems) demonstrated and other more religiously-specific information about how the figure in the sculpture is positioned or what they are wearing/holding/using and so on appear. In all, it is easy to get a lot of information about any one of the images. As with most collections I have looked at, though, no information on the scanning equipment used or the process involved there.

4. Audience
The introduction page explicitly states: "The goal of the digital project was to provide web access to the original images and accompanying text database for educators, scholars, and students interested in the visual arts and culture of Asia." Based on the amount of metadata on the objects, the quality of the images and the extent to which you can clearly zoom in on them, I wouldn't doubt that this could be used for scholarly purposes.


  1. Photography is dependant on the reaction of the chemicals on the film to light, it is easy to deduce the importance of light conditions when taking photographs. As light is as important as indicated, one must also be aware that light can be reflected off certain objects, it can be absorbed by others.
    Black and white photos

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