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Image Quality and Reader Access

Module by: Hilary Ballon, Mariet Westermann. E-mail the authors

Art editors and art historians routinely refer to the discipline's need for high-resolution and true-color (or finely scaled black-and-white) illustrations on heavy-weight, pure white, smooth, yet minimally reflective paper—that is, high-grade, expensive stock.1 This is not just a matter of attachment to a luxurious product that is evocative of the value of Art, as skeptics would have it, but also one of maximizing the function of illustrations to make manifest the author's argument. An author's description of a work is always an interpretive act, and its claims need to be verifiable in the image of the work. Many reconstructions and arguments in art and architectural history depend on the author's and reader's ability to re-imagine a work's aesthetic presence. Although no image on the printed page will ever prompt an aesthetic experience identical to one generated by the work reproduced, the finest illustrations should give the reader and viewer a sufficient approximation of the work to make the argument about its visual qualities susceptible to evaluation.2 This requirement is doubled every time an author seeks to draw fine distinctions between one work and another, and multiplied again when the author charts filial affinities or differences among multiple works or their styles.

These requirements are not absolute, in that the image is always understood to be a surrogate for the work reproduced, and in that many descriptions and comparisons stand up even in fairly low-resolution black-and-white images. Comparisons of figure-ground relationships in portraits by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, say, may be fairly compelling—perhaps even more evident—in grainy black-and-white images. Other comparisons, however, are virtually impossible to sustain without high-quality reproductions. If an author wants to show how Gerard Dou, Rembrandt's first pupil, took up his master's palette and chiaroscuro while simultaneously miniaturizing his brushwork, high-resolution images are in order. And when that author then wants to argue that Dou's pupil Frans van Mieris outdid his teacher's painterly refinements by removing virtually the last visible signs of handiwork from his pictures, even finer reproduction standards are required. Although the correlation between effective reproductions and successful art historical argument and documentation cannot be quantified, it is direct, as scholarly reviews of books with either superior or poor illustrations point out routinely and with justification.

Many art publishers and scholars continue to doubt that the digital image on screen has, in its present state of development, reached the standards of reproductive value and stability of the finest offset printing, whether of analog images or digital files. This complaint is reminiscent of concerns over a feared loss of resolution and flexibility in the transition from analog slide projection to digital projection. Just as those fears have subsided with the development and increasing affordability of high-resolution digital capture and high-powered projection, so analogous concerns about the screen image as a supplement to or integral part of publication are likely to fade as more effective modes of delivering digital publication and images become available.

More serious is the absence, as of yet, of reliable standards of preservation for digital images and for the migration of their formats. To point out that digital instability may not be inherently worse than the chemical volatility of photographs is an insufficient argument for a full-blown switch to digitized visual documentation. Makers, collectors, users, and librarians of digital image collections are keenly aware that digital images will have to improve on the longevity of their analog counterparts, and several coordinated efforts are under way to develop industry standards.3

Limited reader access may be the most serious current obstacle to the widespread use of illustrated scholarly publication in digital form. There are, as yet, no cost-effective digital publication models that protect the investments of scholarly publishers, hold them indemnified against copyright challenges, and yet make the publications as globally available as authors (and their home institutions) would like. Even digital texts without high-grade illustrations often restrict access to narrowly defined reader communities. Newsletters for scholarly societies, for example, tend to restrict the most significant parts of their websites to protect their dues base. Digital publications that would aim to match the high-quality output of the finest illustrated monographs are likely to find image copyrights for top-resolution illustrations an even greater constraint in the clickable medium than it is in print. Without such images, and without an ease of access matching that of pulling a copy off a shelf, digital publications in art history are unlikely to become attractive to authors or readers soon.

In partnership with university presses, university libraries may well prove effective leaders in the effort to develop digital publication involving high-quality illustrations. They have been at the forefront of the fair-use argument for access to copyrighted works; they have broad experience with effective digital delivery models; many now manage significant electronic collections of images and texts; and some have direct or indirect responsibility for their universities' academic presses and/or electronic publishing initiatives.

Footnotes

  1. Christopher Lyon makes this point well in "The Art Book's Last Stand?", forthcoming in Art in America (September 2006). We thank him for sending us advance copy.
  2. For a superb example of high-quality reproductions in a thoughtful layout making the author's point by heightening the viewer's perception, see the sequence of seven pages of color details of Velázquez's The Spinners in Svetlana Alpers, Vexations of Art: Velázquez and Others (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), 139-45. The effectiveness of the visual argument is enhanced by the absence of all captions on these pages.
  3. The literature on digital image quality standards and longevity management is extensive, and its review lies beyond the scope of this study. For an important introduction to the issues and their remediation, see Howard Besser et. al., Preserving Digital Materials: Final Report of the Digital Preservation and Archive Committee, University of California Systemwide Operations and Planning Advisory Group, October 18, 2001, http://libraries.universityofcalifornia.edu/sopag/dpac/DPACFinalReport.pdf.

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Definition of a lens

Lenses

A lens is a custom view of the content in the repository. You can think of it as a fancy kind of list that will let you see content through the eyes of organizations and people you trust.

What is in a lens?

Lens makers point to materials (modules and collections), creating a guide that includes their own comments and descriptive tags about the content.

Who can create a lens?

Any individual member, a community, or a respected organization.

What are tags? tag icon

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My Favorites (?)

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| A lens I own (?)

Definition of a lens

Lenses

A lens is a custom view of the content in the repository. You can think of it as a fancy kind of list that will let you see content through the eyes of organizations and people you trust.

What is in a lens?

Lens makers point to materials (modules and collections), creating a guide that includes their own comments and descriptive tags about the content.

Who can create a lens?

Any individual member, a community, or a respected organization.

What are tags? tag icon

Tags are descriptors added by lens makers to help label content, attaching a vocabulary that is meaningful in the context of the lens.

| External bookmarks