David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Category: Clio 2 Spring 2012 (page 1 of 2)

And now, it is done…

At least for now. At least for the sake of Dr. Petrik’s gradebook. You can see my final assignment, “Santa Anna Goes to Washington.”

There is still more that I would like to do. In spite of Geoff and Sheri’s helpful advice, I never got around to learning how to make an image map. So, my map is not clickable, as was my original plan. I simply ran out of time with the content. Nonetheless, it is here for all to see.

Overall, I’m happy that I worked with Omeka, as it will help me to build upon this site in the future. Part of me wished that I had worked with regular HTML and CSS for the sake of the class assignment, as I would have needed to do less tinkering, but in the end, I was happy with the flexibility to add more pages and objects. As I continue on my overall project, I will continue to add objects and information. I’m also excited to learn more about using PHP in Clio 3 this fall.

But for now, I am going to sleep.

To all of my classmates and Dr. Petrik, thank you for a great semester. I have learned a lot, and have particularly enjoyed getting to know a dynamic, intelligent, and nice bunch of fellow historians and art historians. Thanks to everyone for your help this semester. I will look forward to continuing to learn from, and with, all of you.

Final Project Revision

Based on comments from everyone last week, I’ve gone back and revised my final project. A lot. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that my wife is gone for the next week at the American Association of Museums conference in Minneapolis.

At least, I’ve been revising the design. At first, I was reluctant to depart too far from the Omeka template. Now that I have, though, I’m happier with the result. I made the header and footer fit within the center, rather than take up the whole screen. I also used the border-radius command in the CSS to round out the edges of each of those portions.

I also took Santa Anna out of the header image itself, and placed a different picture of him–in civilian clothing (taken from an 1850 book)–floating over the header map and the primary navigation bar. I chose this particular image because he would have traveled in civilian clothing, not his uniform. Also, it depicts Santa Anna as a younger man (he was 42 at the time of the journey) than any other images that I could find. His look in this image is comparable to that in the previous image of him in a military uniform.

Because I changed the overall color scheme, I also got rid of the color filter for the header map. Instead, I simply lightened the map quite a bit from the original, and changed the color of the route.

Perhaps the largest change, though, is how I got rid of the borders, and indeed the left and right colors. Now the entire background is a lighter version of the faded yellow that I used before. In the end, I’m happy with this change. The bold color on the sides distracted from the content. I hope, however, that this has kept its 19th-century feel.

The lack of borders made the secondary navigation more difficult. After first removing the bottom borders and experimenting with, essentially, buttons, I simply made the secondary navigation into a list, with the active page highlighted the same way the active section is in the main navigation.

So, this is where I am at this point. Please feel free to give me your thoughts! I’m always looking for feedback.

And now, on to putting in more of the content. I also need to figure out skip nav in Omeka. And add an about page…

Preliminary final project

My preliminary final project is live: http://davidmckenzie.info/projects/exhibits/show/santa-anna-goes-to-washington

I feel like it’s coming along. It’s coming along a bit more slowly than I had hoped, but it is coming along. Thus far I’ve found working with Omeka both challenging and rewarding. Rewarding, because it’s taken a learning curve to crack, and because it will give me more flexibility to include more items, particularly as the design solidifies. Challenging, for those same reasons. I have gone back to my CSS repeatedly, as I’ve added more items and realized, oh wait, that didn’t work so well. Not long ago, I expanded my main content container to give everything more breathing room.

A couple continuing issues:

  • The secondary navigation, i.e., the left menu bar. Overall I’m happy with how it’s turned out, except that some page titles get cut off. I’m not sure if it’s an issue with my padding and margins; anyone have thoughts?
  • I may need to go into Omeka’s exhibit page layouts and make some alterations. I haven’t been happy with how some of the layouts are turning out, such as this one. It’s meant to have two columns worth of items on the right side. Right now, it’s only displaying one, but some room for a second. I may need to make it so that it just wants to display one, as I feel the main text is too narrow.

Because of my continuing tinkering with the design (which has been really helped by blog comments from Claire and Lindsey, Twitter comments from program classmates Lynn and Erin, and in-person comments from my wife), I haven’t put in as much of the content as I’d like. There is more to come–but I hope where I am now gives a taste of what will be there.

I will look forward to receiving feedback from my classmates tomorrow night (or tonight, now that I’m writing past midnight). Anyone else that cares to comment, please feel free!

Interactivity: Best Friend and Worst Foe

As the Clio Wired sequence draws to a close (except for those of us doing a minor field in digital history), and we move toward the sequence’s end product–a full digital history project–this week’s reading and web visit considered interactivity.

Ah yes, interactivity. The best friend and worst foe of exhibition developers, informal educators, and web developers alike. The hardest thing to accomplish in museum exhibitions, educational programs, and digital media–and one of the most pedagogically effective. How do we turn our audiences–whether in our physical spaces or in front of their screens of whatever size–from passive consumers of information to active and attentive learners?

In my past life as a content developer at an exhibit firm, how to make our exhibitions more interactive was the question with which the designers and I grappled most. When the firm’s design principal took his kids to a nature center we were contracted to redesign, he noticed they ran to the main interactive activity–a card catalog filled with specimens. Why? It gave them something to do. Even inelegant solutions like flip doors helped in many exhibitions. We often felt like we could do more–but what? Even flip doors–not to mention a pinball table explaining checks and balances–added greatly to the fabrication cost and complication.

The same conundra–cost, complication, and method–face developers and designers of digital media, as Joshua Brown’s 2004 article “History and the Web, From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace: Visual Technologies and Interaction in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries” discusses. Nearly eight years later–even after the advent of mobile technology–his article remains relevant, as the technology of the so-called 3-D Web has seemingly advanced little (for that matter, I had to use my laptop to access Lost Museum since it is Flash-based), and public historians and informal educators are increasingly discussing ways to “gamify” history learning, not just in a digital setting but physically in museums and historic sites as well.

Brown, who worked on some of the earliest digital history projects, assesses the faults and successes of those projects, from the HyperCard-based Who Built America? to the Flash-based, highly graphical Lost Museum. In particular, he focuses on the successes and failures of the Lost Museum site, saying that the game context overly limited the freeform learning that could take place (Lindsey offers a well-done critique of his critique). To increase that learning, the developers added a searchable database of extra information–in other words, they used the 2-D Web to make up for the education that the 3-D Web could not provide.

Looking at Brown’s article and at the Lost Museum site made me think about what I could do on my Omeka-based site, a draft of which is due in a mere two weeks. How do I engage my visitor to learn more about the 1837 visit of Antonio López de Santa Anna and Juan Almonte to Washington, an admittedly esoteric, yet I think (hope) important, topic?

As we’ve frequently discussed, a Web visitor, like a physical visitor to an exhibition or historic site, will not have the same tolerance for passive consumption as, say, a book reader sitting in his or her easy chair on a weekend afternoon. So how do I hook them and get them to learn not just about that trip, but what it reveals about perceptions of Mexicans in the United States a decade before the two countries fought a major war?

How to make this site more interactive–particularly within both the limits of the technology and, more relevantly, the limits of my own technological expertise–is daunting, to put it mildly. I’m having flashbacks to my exhibit firm days. Thus far, my solutions are limited. Is it enough to allow users to click through different levels of information–is that enough interactivity? I’m not so sure.

As Brown asked of the Lost Museum site, for mine, how do I “allow users to intervene in that narrative, to create their own pedagogical pathways and intellectual connections?” Since my site chronicles a journey, my thus far main–and far from original–idea is to allow the user to follow along the journey by including an interactive map. The user can click on different locations on the map to learn more about Santa Anna’s and Almonte’s stops in that place.

I also plan to include space for comments. The site will be structured in a nonlinear way, allowing users to access the images and text in which they are most interested. In some of this, I will take inspiration from 239 Days in America, which chronicles the visit to the United States of a man named ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1912 (and which I have eagerly followed on Twitter)–perhaps at the end of this year I will even tweet day-by-day accounts of Santa Anna and Almonte’s journey 176 years later (I missed the boat–no pun intended–on the 175th).

I would, however, like to move beyond these baby steps. It is far beyond my technical capability (not to mention budget!) to do anything with the 3-D web (whatever is coming of that), so no following the journey in one’s own virtual steamboat or carriage, but I do wonder what else I can do. Quizzes? Polls? How can I transform my passive consumer of information into an active learner? And how much do I need to? That remains to be seen, and suggestions are most welcome!


This week I commented on Richard’s and Celeste’s posts.

Starting to bring it together

At the end of last semester, Dr. Leon asked us to comment on a general prompt: What difference does new media make to doing history? After a course that had some hands-on elements combined with a lot of exploration of what others have done (and even some new media theory), we all commented that it makes a large difference, particularly in how we, as historians, present our work. Now, in this course that strongly emphasizes the hands-on, nuts-and-bolts of basic digital history (the advanced coding awaits many of us next semester), I’m really seeing what a difference the digital makes.

This week’s readings and TED videos (scroll to April 2) really help drive the point that historians–and everyone else–have a wide range of new tools at our disposal. As my classmates and I have previously commented, that also means we need a range of new skills and new considerations in doing our work.

Among those skills is design, so this week we revisited the book White Space Is Not Your Enemy. This was after a near-semester of not just reading about design but doing our own and critiquing that of others. Having picked up some design principles by osmosis previously, but not in a structured manner, I found this book valuable–not only from a “wow, was I doing that wrong!” perspective, but mainly because it offers a lot of good pointers in an accessible way. If anyone is looking for a crash course in design, I’d strongly recommend this book. Being the in-house designer for basic things at my office, I feel like my “eye” has improved over the course of the semester.

Design is not just about making things pretty, but making them accessible–meaning making them approachable by people of all sorts of cognitive and physical abilities. The other readings focused on doing just that. One of the most important pieces of advice is dealing with links, making sure they are obvious through underlining and using a contrasting color.

People of all physical and cognitive abilities, meanwhile, will lose your messages and content without proper information architecture. As we’ve discussed frequently, just as we organize information differently if we are creating a museum exhibition, academic monograph, documentary film, and lecture, we organize it differently for online presentations. In this case, like with any of those others (possibly excepting monographs, although we all complain about how ghastly so many of those are!), we only have a certain amount of time to hook our audience, whether that audience member is reading, watching, listening, or interacting. The articles we read (here and here) gave some good tips for how to organize information, and present visual cues, in an online medium.

The two TED videos we watched, meanwhile, showed us some of the possibilities that new media raise for our work as historians, through using different means to convey our information. Lawrence Lessig talks about how digital technology, in a reverse of a century of technological advancement, is allowing us to bring back what he calls read-write culture. The problem he rightfully identifies, and indeed on which he has hung his shingle, is that copyright law has not kept up with the technology.

As some of us commented last semester, what historians have done all along is a form of read-write culture. We’re taking our sources–be they documents, books, recordings, material culture, or what-have-you–and remixing them into an analysis/narrative to answer a question. We, like other creators, have greater tools now not only to do so, but to do so more transparently. For example, when we create archives and exhibits with Omeka, we are essentially remixing materials to create something new. As we discussed last semester, that act of arranging is in itself making an argument, not to mention whatever interpretation we put on top of it, in whatever form that interpretation takes.

Picture showing full pick-up truck on dirt road in rural area, versus wealthy neighborhood, in El Salvador

One of my favorite portions of Rosling's talk came when he broke out wealth within various countries. Here's my not-so-good visualization of El Salvador's wealth disparity: Top is a scene from my village, San Lorenzo (taken by me in 2003). Bottom is a scene from La Zona Rosa, one of the wealthiest areas of San Salvador (taken by me in 2005).

Digital technology allows us to interpret our primary sources, data, and analysis in more dynamic ways, as Hans Rosling demonstrates brilliantly in his TED talk about debunking myths of the Third World. I was mesmerized watching this video, not only because of an interest in the subject but because of how Rosling conveyed his information. I learned a lot in a short time through his dynamic presentation and impressive visualizations. I can see these statistics in my head. I’m more likely to remember them from his way of presenting than from, say, having them written up or put in tables in The Economist.

The animations to show change over time were, in particular, valuable to us as historians. Although I’m with Claire in not necessarily wanting to spend all the time on the calculations and programming that must have gone into Rosling’s presentation, I nonetheless found the talk inspirational. In giving tours at the Alamo and the historic Adas Israel synagogue, I’ve struggled to convey change over time. Pictures help; but nonetheless, I’ve wondered if my visitors have been able to visualize the spaces at different periods. In these cases I’m only trying to convey change over time in physical structures; what about change over time of concepts, of historical processes? This presentation showed some ways of making those changes visible, and thus more accessible to broad audiences.

As I work toward my final project, due in draft form in three weeks, I know that I have a lot to consider. Besides the project’s integrity as a piece of rigorous history, I need to present it in an accessible, appealing way. When we write even term papers, we have to consider how accessible we make our information. New media adds new challenges of accessibility to consider–but also new promises of access by a wide range of people. These are challenges I’m looking forward to tackling over the next few weeks.

Belated Addendum:

This week I commented on blog posts by Megan and Claire.

Addendum: Making my own information more accessible

1846 and Boschke maps of Washington, merged together

The two maps, together. I suppose another step would involve superimposing one on the other. Perhaps another time.

This afternoon, as I finished up Visual Explanations, and furthermore tonight, when I returned home from giving a talk and saw Megan’s insightful comment about ability to compare maps, I realized I had made a mistake of parallelism in my previous blog post. When I displayed the 1846 and Boschke maps of Washington, I didn’t display them next to each other, and more importantly, I didn’t display them consistently.

The Boschke map was rotated as drawn, because it was taking in the area of the original diamond-shaped, off-angle District of Columbia–thus was not drawn with north facing up. The 1846 map took in just the city of Washington, and was drawn with north facing up.

So to make them more comparable, I went back to our now old friend Photoshop. I didn’t, for now, bother with making them a consistent color or cleaning any damage (since it’s 12:31 a.m.–so if anyone sees me bleary-eyed in class, you know why!). But I did rotate the Boschke map, and crop it so that it was consistent with the 1846 map. Then, I put the two maps into one image, separated by a small white line. So, here is my work–I saved it at 800 pixels wide, so you can get more of a comparison by clicking on the image. Now it’s easier to see how the 1846 map just shows the city’s blocks, giving an illusion of a built-out city, while the Boschke map shows the city as it actually existed in the late 1850s–having grown significantly even since 1846.

Addendum 2: This week I commented on Claire’s and Richard’s posts.

Making information accessible

As we’ve discussed throughout the semester, design is not just about making things pretty, but also functional–to go back to my former classmate’s telling, the crossroads of art and engineering. This week’s web visits focused more on the functionality part, specifically making websites accessible to people with disabilities, and the reading (Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations) on making information and arguments accessible in visual form.

As I’ve worked on my website and blog, I haven’t been as cognizant of accessibility for people with disabilities as I should have. Dr. Petrik has alluded to methods that she uses on her own sites for screen readers. Although I could have just plucked her code, I had not yet done so. I also sometimes have put in alt-text for my images, and admittedly barely so. After using WebAim’s Screen Reader Simulation, I’m going back and making sure that my pages are more accessible, particularly to visually impaired people. If you haven’t used it, I strongly recommend you do so.

Maggie makes the point that, at its base, the Internet is a fundamentally text-based medium–even when it comes to images. This makes it more accessible, and shows that the main thing is conveying information. Now I see another reason for Steve Jobs to take on on his seemingly now-successful crusade to destroy Flash: it does not help to convey information for those unable to see it, because it obscures text from screen readers.

This does not mean, of course, that images do not have their place.  This is where Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations comes into play. Sometimes a visual simply makes an argument better–as long as it is done correctly. Lindsey’s post has a great synopsis of some of the book’s more salient points.

Map of Washington, 1846. Map shows the squares and streets of the city, but not where the actual buildings are.

Map of Washington, 1846. Map shows the squares and streets of the city, but not where the actual buildings are--perhaps giving the impression of much more urban development than in actuality.

How a visualization is done, of course, makes a difference in what information it conveys. To complement Tufte’s brilliant examples, I’d like to add early maps of Washington. Often we see the original L’Enfant-Ellicott plan of streets. Later maps of Washington show the same, such as the 1846 map that I show here. But then consider the Boschke map, produced just before the Civil War (and confiscated upon war’s outbreak because of its possible value to the Confederacy). The mapmaker meticulously detailed each building in the city, not just the streets and squares as most previous maps did. This map shows just how undeveloped the planned area of the city of Washington was, seven decades after L’Enfant, Ellicott, and Banneker laid it out. The streets were there, but many blocks were undeveloped. One would not gain that impression from the 1846 map.

Boschke map of Washington, 1857, showing where the buildings are. A close look reveals most development concentrated around the Capitol, White House, and 7th Street--but most of the L'Enfant-Ellicott plan remained undeveloped.

Boschke map of Washington, 1857, showing where the buildings are. A close look reveals most development concentrated around the Capitol, White House, and 7th Street--but most of the L'Enfant-Ellicott plan remained undeveloped.


Along the lines of accessibility: not only are some arguments more accessible via images and visualizations, but some people learn better via images. I, for one, tend more to remember seeing a picture of something than a written or auditory explanation. The graphics in this book are absolutely stunning, and demonstrate–not just tell–how images can be used to convey meaning. By working in new media, we now have greater abilities to communicate with more than words. Our visualizations can reach all the more people.

So, then, we have a juxtaposition here in this week’s readings. The Web allows us to communicate using not just text but also images, movies, sound files, etc. But at the same time, it makes our content more accessible to audiences that rely on the text. So, then, what to do?

In the public history world, we design exhibitions and educational programs around different learning styles and different physical abilities. I remember many times walking a space with my exhibit designer former boss and measuring out accessibility requirements, and discussing different learning styles with educators. Just the same, in the digital world we must design to be accessible not just to people with physical impairments but different learning styles. So we must incorporate both greater explanatory text and explanatory images into our sites. The images are there for those who can see them; good descriptions help convey textually the messages we are trying to convey with the images.

Is this hard? You bet. In public history, it is. But it is also necessary. It is in digital history, too. Thanks to this week’s assignments, I’m going to make a point to be more conscious of making my work and its arguments accessible–in all the many shades of that word–to various audiences.

Map in the Wilderness Road Blockhouse Interpretive Center, blown up from a .jp2 file from the Library of Congress.

Map in the Wilderness Road Blockhouse Interpretive Center, blown up from a .jp2 file from the Library of Congress. Wound up crystal-clear.

What a Tool: As part of our blog posts this week, we’ve been asked to mention a digital tool that we find useful for historians. Because I have a hard time making decisions sometimes, I’m suggesting two:

  • Instapaper: This app, for iPhone, iPad, and for web browsers, is wonderful for saving things that you want to read, but for which you don’t have time at that moment. I use it most often to save articles off of Twitter, particularly ones that I see during my commute. It’s also nice to have for said commute, or for time at the gym. In fact, last semester I read most of my articles in that way.
  • Library of Congress Map Collections: The Library of Congress has one of the world’s most amazing map collections, and has digitized a bunch of it. Not only is it digitized, but with super-high-resolution, .jp2 files. Meaning: When I worked for the exhibition design firm, I downloaded a .jp2 version of a late 18th century map of Virginia (sadly I forget which, so I don’t have a link to it here), made some tinkers (Photoshop did not at the time read .jp2, something that has since been corrected), and blew it up to a 8.5 foot tall wall mural at the Wilderness Road Blockhouse Interpretive Center in far southwest Virginia. Amazingly, the map at that size is crystal-clear. I’ve also taken a neighborhood view from an 1884 birds-eye of Washington–I was able to get such detail because of the quality of the scan. And I previously wrote about how the serendipitous discovery of an 1819 map of Mexico and the southern United States led me to a person to include in my dissertation (alas, someone else has already written an article on him. Harumph.) Not only are these maps great for display, however; they also are wonderful primary sources. Something indispensable in any historian’s toolkit.

Photoshop for history

This week’s assignment, working with images, is up.

As others have commented, it is amazing how addictive working with images in Photoshop can be. Thankfully I got a plenty early start on it!

I chose to give my page a name: “Retouching the Capital City.” I was particularly excited about a Library of Congress painting of Washington in the 1840s–I used that as my banner header for the page (and cleaned up, but some blemishes remain). I chose the name because I chose images of Washington from different times–particularly one landmark in Washington, the historic Adas Israel synagogue, of which I give tours regularly as part of my job.

I gave myself a bit of a challenge. The one extant image of the sanctuary from the building’s synagogue period (1876-1908) came out of a 1903 newspaper. The original does not exist. The newspaper copy was essential for restoration in the early 1970s, and we frequently show it to visitors. So I tried to see if I could restore. I think I accomplished some, but it’s still most definitely a newspaper photo. I also tried a hand-coloring of it, to give perhaps a better view of what the interior originally looked like.

I also hand-colored an exterior shot from the same newspaper article. I think that turned out better, largely because the walls were not painted white, as the interior ones were! But if you want to see a really, really good colored image, I suggest you visit Megan’s page.

To get more practice, particularly with actual photographs, I restored two 1960s color photos of the former synagogue–by then three storefronts, including one with a barbecue pork sign. This proved significantly easier, and I hope helps bring greater understanding of that building’s history.

For matting an engraving, and for vignette, I used an image of Washington from 1832, showing the Capitol with the old dome. This one also proved easier to work with than the two newspapers, although it seems that some of the best methods for dealing with engravings work on images without the heavy gray dots that this one has.

The page for the assignment has more about what I did to achieve (or not) the various effects.

So all in all, an enjoyable assignment. I’m learning, as others have mentioned, just how time-consuming, frustrating, and yet absolutely amazing Photoshop is. I have already used it some in my nascent (public, thus far) history career, and am glad to know it much, much better.

Putting the assignment online gave me the opportunity to play with my webpage somewhat. On the image assignment, I got rid of the sidebar, which had been cluttering up the homepage and type assignment (I left the sidebar on those pages, though, as that would bring about a near-total reformatting). Because the image assignment page is so long, I added a navigation menu at the bottom. I’ve put that on the other pages, too.

I’m considering changing the crimson-and-yellow color scheme of the overall site, but for now I’ve decided to keep it. If anyone has suggestions there, I’m all ears.

My classmates may appreciate that for this page I didn’t use ornaments all over the place!

In order to show captions with the images, I put them into their own divs. Originally I had floated them left or right, but I realized that it would make the most sense to display before-and-after shots side-by-side. I also wanted to have the captions under each individual image.

To do that, I experimented with creating a second div, to wrap the two divs. After much, much difficulty and attempts at coding, I seem to have gotten that to work. At first the images displayed side-by-side, but the height was inconsistent, leading to some strange word wrapping. I then tried setting a background color for the large div. That didn’t display. Finally, after some trial and error I got that to display–but one caption hung over. So in the end, I just cheated the shorter caption, adding line breaks to make it even.

If anyone wants to look at my CSS and tell me if I should be doing something else with that portion, I’m all ears! Like with Photoshop, there is still a great deal to learn…

Addendum: This week I commented on Claire’s and Richard’s blogs.

More Photoshop play

This week’s reading and video assignments cover more about the magical world of Photoshop, particularly how it can be used to restore historic photos to their former glory.

As Dr. Petrik noted in our class discussion last week following the class’s lively blog exchange (read the awesome posts by Sheri, Geoff, Lindsey, Celeste, Megan, Beth, Stephanie, John, and Jeri, all responding to each other), images start changing the moment they are created. They deteriorate; they change. In order for us to get the utmost information out of them–and for our audiences to get the most information–we need to modify them. This week’s assignments show just how powerful of a tool Photoshop is for accomplishing such tasks.

Like Claire and Maggie, I have dabbled in Photoshop through the years for various tasks, mostly learning what I needed to in order to complete the task at hand. Like them, I’m happy to have some more formal training, as the sheer power and complexity of the program has long intimidated me. For example, I did the header image of my Clio 1 proof-of-concept project in InDesign rather than Photoshop. Although InDesign worked well for simple tasks, like fading the background map, I couldn’t do nearly the effects I could with Photoshop.

The more that I’ve read and watched the past two weeks, the more in awe I am of Photoshop; as Robin Williams (not the comedian!) and John Tollett note in The Non-Designers Photoshop Book, the thousands, even millions, of options this program presents are just amazing. I’m still a bit intimidated–I’m glad to have these books and videos as references–but am glad to know what can be done. If you are looking for a book on Photoshop, I’d recommend this one.

While last week’s Lynda.com video (“Photoshop CS5 for the Web”) was helpful, like others I watched it passively. With this week’s (“Photo Restoration with Photoshop”), by contrast, I’ve been dabbling in using the techniques on my own photos and images.

As Claire and Maggie said, if only I had known about some of the options when I had something I needed to accomplish.

Unrestored version of 1884 Sachse map of Washington, zoomed into present-day Penn Quarter/Judiciary Square/Chinatown neighborhood. Note the under-construction Pension Bureau (today the National Building Museum).

1884 Sachse map, partially repaired. It is still obvious where the rip was because of the differing tones from left to right. Next step...

I especially wished I had known how to repair rips and folds when I worked on a brochure about Jewish sites in downtown Washington in 2009. I found an 1884 birds-eye view of Washington. Thanks to the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division’s compression technology, I was able to download an extremely high-resolution version of this map. I then zoomed into and cropped the neighborhood that the brochure interprets, roughly today’s Judiciary Square, Penn Quarter, and Chinatown area. The problem? The original map had been folded, and thus partially dissolved, right where I needed. Being clueless about Photoshop, I didn’t think there was much I could do except move part of the map closer to the other, to at least close part of the gap. Nonetheless, the gap was still there.

While watching the video, I decided to try some of the techniques suggested, including the clone stamp, patch tool, and spot repair tool, on that map. I’m showing my result here. It’s far from perfect, and indeed I’m not sure I would use this in the brochure; it was too difficult, and possibly impossible, to fill in some of the gaps with precision because of the map’s extreme detail. Nonetheless, in a 3-inch-by-4-inch (or something along those lines) map in a brochure, that might still work. Perhaps for the next print run I’ll use it…

Faded picture of my grandfather and uncle, late 1950s.

Not perfect, but getting there. Doesn't look like such an old picture.

Meanwhile, during a segment on restoring life to a faded black-and-white photo, I took a photo of my maternal grandfather and uncle. The Curves and Levels techniques that the video suggested worked; here I’m also showing before and after. It’s still not perfect, nor as good as the one the presenter showed. This image was more difficult because the left side was extremely dark; perhaps I will need to crop it.

While the restoration was far from perfect, I was able to see so much more detail. Thus, the ability to restore images is invaluable for us as historians. Images show a lot, but deteriorated images also hide a lot. If we want to use images more effectively, both in research and dissemination of our work product, it’s important that the images be up to par.

So as I spend my “spring break” (said using quotation marks since it’s still a normal work week!) working on the image assignment, I’m feeling less intimidated by Photoshop. Still a bit intimidated, but glad to be dabbling more in this powerful, and amazing, software.

Addendum #1: Geoff and Megan both have great posts about the staging of photographs and how discerning we need to be toward photographs as historical resources. Read them.

Addendum #2: This week I commented on blog posts by Richard, Megan, and Beth.

Playing with Photoshop

For this week, we are moving from setting up pages on the Web to the nitty-gritty of Photoshop. As I read through the book, the articles and watched the video, I started playing with my own images. All of the books for class thus far have been helpful, but Non-Designers Photoshop Book has been the most so thus far. Its short lessons allowed me to really get immersed.

There used to be a power cord, rather visible, in the lower right corner. Now there's not. Happy, dear?

For this lesson I particularly liked using my own images (especially since I have not yet upgraded my Lynda.com membership to get the exercise files, although I’m considering following Claire’s and Geoff’s advice to do so). Some of the exercises produced rather funny results. I removed wrinkles from a sketch of Antonio López de Santa Anna drawn around the time of the U.S.-Mexican War, when he was in his 50s. I made my more recent self look like I did when I lost 30 pounds (long since regained, plus more) during my Peace Corps stint in El Salvador. Since my wife justifiably dislikes visible power cords, I removed one from a photo of our Christmas tree.

While all of these were fun, Photoshop of course has serious uses, even for us as historians. To practice colorizing, I used a sketch of Washington created in 1839. Indeed, I plan to use it for the colorization component of our image assignment in a few weeks. For my final project, this image will help the user visualize Washington when Santa Anna and Juan Almonte visited in 1837. The now sepia-toned sketch would do the trick just fine. But the color will add, well, a layer of color to that. Perhaps I could even juxtapose that image with contemporary images of, for example, Mexico City and Vera Cruz (Santa Anna’s base of operations, near his hacienda), and also cities and landscapes they passed in the United States. This would show the different visual worlds these men experienced. The ability to do this is, indeed, one of the powers of digital history–to help people connect with the past by seeing it. Colorizing the image will help with that visualization, that connection.

Beginning to add color to Washington. Emphasis on the term "beginning." Still a long way to go!

Sheri raises important ethical questions about manipulating images in our work–ones that behoove historians to consider. To what degree is it ethical to manipulate an image? How far can or should we go to being like Stalin, who purged his enemies from historical photos as he purged them from the earth?

I suppose my answer for that question would be, it depends (the ultimate historian’s cop-out). In large measure, my answers are colored by working on museum exhibitions, where we manipulate images in different ways all the time, and face similar issues. In an exhibition, an image can serve two purposes. It can be part of the design, or an artifact.

Exhibition developers and designers do a lot to images that are design elements. In fact, my first introduction to Photoshop came in an exhibition design class, where we cut Gene Autry out of a larger image, made him blue, and put him into an exhibition panel. This image, however, was a part of the design–just as one would be for the masthead of a website. So on the revised masthead of my type assignment (still a work in progress after last week’s discussion–you will notice, though, fewer ornaments!), for example, I include a cut-out image of Santa Anna and the aforementioned 1839 sketch of Washington. These images are decorations, so I had few qualms about manipulating them. Indeed, they need more manipulation, which they will receive as my Photoshop skills increase.

Santa Anna, with botox. Of course, I would not use this image as an "artifact" on my final site.

However, as artifacts, exhibition developers and designers and have to tread a much more careful line, along the lines of what Sheri insightfully raises. When we have an image, say, with a caption, we should present it as close to the original as possible. That’s not to say that things aren’t touched up; for example, one may remove the broken glass line from the famous last photo of Lincoln (although Sheri raises great points as to why this possibly should not be done), but would not, say, make him into a vampire or even a vampire-hunter (leave that for novelists and now filmmakers).

The same applies to the web. On my type page, I won’t replace the image of Santa Anna in the main text with the botox-ed version (as much as the image-conscious general would probably thank me). I may, however, enhance the image; that would reveal even more of its fine detail. This, to me, is akin to a museum placing different lighting on an artifact, or putting a zoomable 3-D image of it on a screen next to the artifact, allowing the user to experience it in a way he or she couldn’t otherwise (as the Library of Congress did in its Americas exhibition).

Just the same, when I present my colorized image of Washington, I will include a caption saying that I’ve colorized it, letting my user know that it’s a modified version of the original historical artifact (itself with a vein of fantasy about it, as many early images of Washington are).

Thus, I am quite excited to be learning all that Photoshop can do. It has the power not only to make images look better, but work better for researching and conveying history.

Addendum: This week I commented on Sheri’s and Claire’s blogs.

Addendum 2: If you haven’t watched through to the end of the lynda.com video, I strongly recommend you do so. The part about smart objects may save you hours in the end. So glad to know that part now… The other day, when I was updating my type page, I kept going back and forth between Photoshop and Dreamweaver whenever I wanted to make a change to the still-in-progress header image…


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