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From the Archives

Image Wrangling: The State of Affairs

Sarah Rovang

Greetings from New Orleans! It is technically "Spring Break," or as graduate students like to call it, "Time to Catch Up on Work." I'm using my work time this week to get organized and start putting together Chapter 2, which is quickly becoming a conceptual labyrinth that will warrant a blog post of its own. But my other big project for break has been image organization.  

Image management is something I've struggled with for ages. Finally, in this, my fifth year of graduate school, I've settled on a system that I think just might be sustainable for the next few years at least. This is a unique problem for a field that deals with images and where metadata for those images is also important. Talking to colleagues in my department, I get the sense that others have had the same issue figuring out a tenable system. While image management is a personal issue that depends on one's project and long-term goals, I hope that my experiences can at least provide a little inspiration or insight. 

First Attempt - iPhotos 

In undergrad, I would import all of my study images into iPhoto and make albums called "French Art Midterm" or "Greek Sculptures Term Paper." It was inelegant but effective for what I needed it for at the time. However, it presented the frustration of having Islamic mosaics and Renaissance interiors mixed in with pictures of friends and family. At some point, I began craving a separation of my work images and personal images. The Photos app (formerly iPhoto) is a much better fit for personal photos anyway - its location and facial recognition images make it an ideal choice for vacation pictures but a less than stellar option for managing intense amounts of metadata. Plus, because of how Photos creates an "library," there's a lot of exporting every time one needs to move photos or use them in an external document. 

Second Attempt - Stacking Folders

Near the beginning of grad school I moved everything out of Photos and into separate file folders. This worked for a while but soon started to present certain organizational issues. For my project, I have lots of archival images from many different sources, all of which have their own organizational systems. Do I organize my photos by source or by image content? How do I name my photos in such a way that I can find them again or remember what I have? Once I finished my qualifying paper using this system, I realized it was time to move on. 

Third Attempt - Web-based apps

Next I tried a number of web-based apps including Flickr. I liked the Flickr interface and think it could really work for some users, but it again presented some quandaries that I never resolved. For example, if all of the images are on your Flickr account, should you just keep that cloud-based system and delete the original images off your hard drive? Does that mean you need to "download" your images each time you want to use one in a presentation or paper? It also felt like kind of a hassle when I had to upload a batch of images. The keyword features were solid, but again, not exactly what I was looking for. I eventually deleted my Flickr account and temporarily gave up my search for an image management system. 

Current Iteration - Adobe Lightroom and Spreadsheets

In late 2014 I began using Adobe Lightroom, which is available with Adobe Photoshop for $10/month. Not the cheapest option, but so far the only one I can see myself using for the next several years. It is fast, powerful, and has an intuitive user interface. 

Let's take the example of this image that I found in the National Archives at College Park. This image shows one of the buildings I'm looking at, a cooperative office building and generating plant in Florida, that was completed and photographed in 1940. 

And here's what that image looks like once I've gotten it loaded into Lightroom:

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 10.46.59 AM.png

Wow! Lots of things going on! Here's the breakdown of the main Lightroom features I've been using:

Keywording - I use keywords to quickly and easily locate certain kinds of images within Lightroom. I keyword images by their source ("Library of Congress" or "Kansas City National Archives," e.g.), their content ("generating plant," "Farm Equipment Tour," "home demonstration"), the electric cooperative it corresponds to (if applicable), the year created, location, and creator. I have over a thousand images related to my dissertation and this system makes it easy to, for example, find a modern cooperative building in Florida. You can see in this example that I've tagged the image above with the following labels:

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 10.53.43 AM.png

Flags and Labels - Lightroom's flags and color labels can be used however you want. I use a green label to signify that the photo shows a specific electric cooperative. Blue is for works I've finished keywording and tagging but don't have a location for. 

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 11.09.23 AM.png

Lightroom has a lot of other great features that I've only just begun to explore. You can change the metadata of your images in the application, open the pictures in Photoshop to seamlessly edit, and create collections (which are basically like "Albums" in Apple's Photos). Unlike Photos, Lightroom does not make a "library" of photos, it just catalogs your photos where they are in photos. This means you can't move your photos from folder to folder or Lightroom will get confused, but it also means there's no more "exporting" when you need to use an image for something like Powerpoint. If you just right-click the image and choose "Show in Finder" you're all set! 

For some image sets, I have some other kinds of information (like more specific data on the physical archival source: box numbers, folder names, etc.) that I like to keep track of and that I don't want to bother putting into Lightroom. These are important to know for citing the images but won't help me find the images within Lightroom. I keep this info in spreadsheets that go in the folders with the original images. Thus, when I need to, I can refer back to the original file information based on negative number or file name. They generally look like this:

This system of mine is still a work in progress, but so far it has significantly expedited a few presentations that I've had to put together. As an additional bonus, creating my Lightroom collection has really made me think critically about this images and how I want to use them in my dissertation.