Tag Archives: photography

Open Plaques: joining the blue dots

Writing in the Telegraph last year, Stephen Fry reflected: “Many of us like to believe that we understand the point of history. We all pay lip service to the idea that yesterday makes today, but it is hard to make the imaginative leap that truly connects us to the past. It is as if we are forced to move forwards in such a narrow passageway of time that the act of stopping to look behind us is difficult.”

Fry surmised that the UK’s blue plaques – erected to mark the physical locations occupied by people from history who have left a notable mark on our culture – were a living corrective to this. But are they really? What if these inert short-form stories were re-animated by augmenting the physical markers with a layer of digital information that made looking back in time from the present day a far easier, richer and more immediate experience? Wouldn’t that be a greater step forward in terms of bringing history to life?

WB Yeats open plaque on Flickr courtesy of ChicagoGeek

Even as Fry was writing this in June 2009, a project was already underway do just that – to open up that heritage and make it accessible, expanding the narrow passageway of time that Fry lamented.

Credit to kickstarting this goes to Frankie Roberto who came away from a conference on mobile learning for the museums and archives sector in January 2009 with a bee in his bonnet:

“You see them everywhere – especially when sat on the top deck of a double-decker bus in London – and yet the plaques themselves never seem that revealing. You’ve often never heard of the person named, or perhaps only vaguely, and the only clue you’re given is something like “scientist and electrical engineer” (Sir Ambrose Fleming) or “landscape gardener” (Charles Bridgeman).

I always want to know more. Who are these people, what’s the story about them, and why are they considered important enough for their home to be commemorated? I’d like to be able to find out all this, and to do so at the point at which I stumble across a plaque – which to me suggests something on a mobile platform.”

In the 15 months since, this desire for deeper and more accessible context to these static emblems has crystallized in the Open Plaques initiative. An open source community project; it is also community-driven by necessity, due mainly to the data surrounding the UK plaques being fragmented between hundreds of bodies, and not only inconsistent but sometimes totally absent.

It gathered momentum when Frankie’s early efforts caught the attention of Jez Nicholson, Simon Harriyott and Marvin Baretto who’d already (coincidentally) teamed-up to do a blue plaques project for the Open Hack London event in May 2009. So it happened that they prototyped a website that could pull this information together.

Open Plaques London Map

The Open Plaques service which emerged from this ad-hoc grouping (which I joined later last year) synthesises a number of tactics and workarounds to overcome the challenges it faces. As the plaques by their very existence are in public domain, Frankie has made a series of Freedom of Information requests for data and records of the plaques to several of the bodies that hold them, so they can aggregate them together and offer the data in standardised form for free re-use by others.

In turn, the already existent Blue Plaques group on Flickr proved useful and amenable, and the idea of using images from Flickr on the Open Plaques service gained an important leg-up when Flickr agreed to grant a “machine tag” option to photographs of plaques uploaded under a Creative Commons licence.

It’s remarkably simple and works like this: each plaque location listed on the Open Plaques database (which you can search on their site by name, place or organisation) has a number. When the number is added as a machine code in the tags of the corresponding photograph on Flickr by the user – and if the user gives the photo a Creative Commons licence – the image is pulled from Flickr onto the Open Plaques website. The service also allows geo co-ordinates to be imported.

The site itself is still in Alpha phase of development but is already substantially populated – with 38.44% of 2297 known plaques in the database now having a corresponding machine-tagged photograph.

William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect on Flickr courtesy of Sleekit

The whole project is still in the earliest of stages. Making it fully functional and accessible on mobile devices still lies ahead. Any number of possibilities for what could be done going forward suggest themselves. But in the very act of pulling it together, it already bears the DNA stamp of what it could some day become. The plaques themselves encapsulate people-powered history: a history of action, ideas and invention. Open Plaques has the potential to transform them into a living resource – and make each one a porthole that helps us connect with, understand and traverse moments in place and time, just like Stephen Fry said.

Re-shaping historical interest points nationwide as dynamic experiences is a mammoth task but Open Plaques – which is unfunded and 100% volunteer based – is already gearing up for a productive 2010. In February, Simon and Frankie attended the first ever English Heritage conference on commemorative plaques (yes, they’re not all blue) to find out more about the organisation’s thinking and plans, and talk to people about the initiative. Simon also talked about the project at last week’s £5 App Meet in Brighton.

In the meantime, we need more people to help fill up the image database – yes that’s you Flickr users! – plus help with the technical development. Spreading the word also matters and you can stay in the loop by following Open Plaques on Twitter.

Any input is welcome. You can even source and suggest plaques that aren’t on the website’s (incomplete) list. So if you’d like to get involved in connecting past and present, and do some local or further-afield exploring in the process, visit the site’s Contribute page for more instructions, see Jez’s blog and the Open Plaques group for simple Flickr tips or get in touch directly, and lend a hand in joining the blue dots.

[UPDATE 12/5/10] We now have an Open Plaques blog and I’ve added my first post: Meet the time bandits.

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Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Lee Miller in focus

Telling the story of my Finding Ada heroine for 2010 – photographer Lee Miller – requires taking a broad perspective. Her life’s achievement is a composite of a number of key strands: art, photography, fashion, technology and war reporting, bound together by a pioneering spirit.

This hurried blog isn’t the place to explore and understand these all in detail. Lee Miller was a breakthrough figure for a number of reasons – this is just a snapshot.

Lee Miller self portrait, New York 1942

Born in Poughkeepsie, New York state in 1907, Elizabeth “Lee” Miller left for Paris at the age of eighteen where, according to Ursula Butler:

“She studied lighting, costume and theatre design at Ladislas Medgyes’s School of Stagecraft. She later returned to New York and enrolled in the Art Students League. There she met Condé Nast and he introduced Miller to the world of modeling. From 1926-1929 she modeled, but eventually wanted to see what life was like behind the camera. Miller studied under the great dada-surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. Under his supervision, Miller learned how to manipulate the photograph to make a self-contained, semi-abstract or dreamlike image.”

She also became his wife and established her own studio. So far so interesting, but things were just hotting up.

The word ‘photography’ was coined by scientist Sir John F.W. Herschel in 1839 (though it had been coined seperately by Hercules Florence in 1834!) and is actually is derived from two Greek words: ‘photos’ meaning light and ‘graphein’ meaning draw. The pace of technology development in cameras and photography accelerated during the early twentieth centry, but our subject’s contribution to the science of photography was a marriage of chance and artistry. Miller brought the alchemy.

Much debate surrounds the issue as to which of the couple stumbled across a technique in photography that – like a reverse negative of the ‘photography’ coinage – had been discovered a few times previously but not clearly defined and adopted: namely solarisation.

Solarized portrait of an unknown woman by Lee Miller, Paris 1930

The effect was usually caused by inadvertent severe over-exposure or occasionally by accidentally exposing an exposed plate or film to light before processing. Artist Man Ray perfected the technique which was accidentally discovered in his darkroom by his assistant Lee Miller.” [Wikpedia]

Whatever the facts, Man Ray was soon flying the flag for perfecting this technique whilst his collaborator Miller was merely, again, known as his model (although she marshalled the technique to equally compelling effect – see her above ‘Portrait of an Unknown Woman’ from 1930). Man Ray was of the controlling variety, and Miller being a woman of substance soon broke free of his grip. She continued to be deeply involved in the Surrealist movement, amassing a body of work in her late twenties and early thirties that puts her on a par with the leading figures in photographic art and photo journalism, though this has only been recognised in the last two decades after her death, thanks to the meticulous recovery, ordering and promotion of her archives by her son.

A friend of Picasso – and combining commercial fashion photography and artistic work while entwined in a bohemian milieu – what beguiles me is the mastery she achieved in the realm of photography by bringing with her all her selves as she worked though each chapter of her career and each dimension of her work. There was truth and artifice – with neither undermining the other – in her iconic photo ‘Women with fire masks’ (1941), taken on the street of her own residence in Hampstead.

Women with firemasks by Lee Miller, 1941

Conversely, when Vogue sent her off with a Rolliflex to Europe to cover the end of the war and the liberation, her photos combined a self-sufficient, often mysterious power with a visceral sense of unfolding drama. As she travelled through a bombed-out, shattered Europe, her camera captured many of the most powerful images of the closing months of that dark chapter in the last century. From the Italian front and the first ever use of Napalm at the siege of St Malo, to the death camps of Buchenwald and Dachau, and the liberation of Paris, you can view a wide selection of her potent war images online in the Lee Miller Archive.

Mistress of the lens, at the height of her career she lived for several years in this house on Downshire Hill in Hampstead, also spending time in Egypt and travelling widely, before moving to Farley Farm House in east Sussex. She had two further marriages, the second to British surrealist artist Roland Penrose whom she stayed with.

Lee Miller’s house, Downshire Hill, London, March 2010

After the war, whilst still doing the occasional fashion shoot, Miller’s overall profile declined and she suffered bouts of clinical depression alleged (in retrospect) to have been symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the horrors she had seen while on war assignment. In turn, her ironic sensibility was reinforced with disillusionment at the limited type of commercial work she was being offered. Women en masse had successfully taken on all sorts of previously “male” roles during the conflict, and as a surrealist photojournalist embedded with the US army Miller was among them. But after the war, governments scrambled to promote traditional values in their efforts to glue broken societies back together, and opportunities for women in the working world shrank.

In her lifetime, she was all to aware of the cultural – and personal – impact of womens’ abilities and output being marginalised. A photograph she composed of Max Ernst and his partner, artist Dorothea Tanning, encapsulates her subversive take on this.

The recognition she has posthumously achieved was acknowledged on a grand scale some 30 years after her death in a major retrospective at the V&A in 2007, which I attended, plus coverage and exhibitions globally in the last decade. Now the scales have been duly re-balanced, we can celebrate Miller as a true icon and pioneer in the art and technology of photography. For innovation and inspiration personified, look to Lee Miller on Ada Lovelace Day.

Ada Lovelace Day is an annual worldwide day of blogging to celebrate the achievement of women in science and technology. More information on Ada Lovelace Day 2010 can be found on the Finding Ada website.  This post hasn’t been much about technology per se – it’s what we do with it that matters…