Saturday, January 10, 2009


With the new year and more people searching for historic images, it's time to write up a bit of how this works. Basically there are two ways to get started:

Tug on the sleeve of somebody who has more material than time to restore it.

Go looking for material yourself.

Most of the newcomers seem to prefer the hard way so here are a few words from experience.

Overall, only about 1 in 1000 archival images has the right technical parameters to consider for featured picture candidacy. Many of the others may be encyclopedic or interesting, and worth using at Wikipedia. It's a lot of work getting one image restored so I usually focus on material that has the potential to go all the way. Yesterday I blogged about Toni Frissell's portrait of Tuskegee Airman Capt. Edward M. Thomas. These are a few of the things I wanted to use along the way to locating that portrait.

The first of several attempts was Booker T. Washington. I had recently restored a portrait of George Washington Carver, who had been a contemporary of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute. That prompted the thought that maybe we could get a featured picture pair. Unfortunately that idea didn't turn out well. Ran into problems like the one above: it's available in a 25MB version, but it's too heavily damaged across the face to really work with.

He must have been a superb public speaker. The Library of Congress has several images of Washington speaking outdoors to crowds, and in every one of him both he and the audience look very engaged. Again--and I call these things heartbreakers--the only one that's available in a reasonable 12MB resolution is one of the weakest of these. The postures of the men near the steps are priceless: the nearest ones leaning forward, mouths open in laughter, while others farther away fold their arms or scratch their chins skeptically. Unfortunately the uneven fade on this image means Washington's face itself is barely visible, the lower right corner is lost, and a partial figure in the left foreground distracts from the composition. There's simply no way to crop the problems out.

These are images I'd love to see in higher resolution, but they aren't available online any larger than this. One lists the location as New Orleans; another, Mississippi; the last one is captioned 'I want our people to have homes.' Wikipedia has one clip of him speaking. You can hear his voice here.

What's frustrating is to get this close to something--so close I can almost hear the cicadas of a sticky Gulf Coast afternoon--and miss the shot. I could restore his home or his wife (although neither would be quite good enough for featured picture either even if they had as much encyclopedic value). Wikipedians who notice my image work usually see only the successes, but this is a glimpse of what's behind that. A whole lot of searching; a whole lot of things that are nearly good enough but just won't fly; a whole lot of material that has the encyclopedic value but not the right technicals.

There's nothing to be done but get used to it and keep on looking. Sometimes you can write and request a better version, but most of the people you'll communicate with don't understand the technicals and the new file--if you get it--may still be unusable. The gems are out there too, and when one finally turns up it's worth all the effort.

And thanks to Moni3, who's working hard to get started, for inspiring today's post.

1 comment:

Kozuch82 said... might be good start either way.