The Digital Humanities: A Conversation with Robert Consoli

Blog Entry

by James Blake Wiener
published on 17 December 2012
The "Digital Revolution" of the 1990s and 2000s has changed the way in which we interpret, study, access, and share knowledge. Without a doubt, technology has affected our lives and how we organize information, in some ways, for the better.

In this interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Mr. Robert Consoli, the Founder of SquinchPix, a free photo image e-resource for researchers and students in the liberal arts and humanities. Noting the ways in which technology, photography, and technological platforms have increased our access to the arts and culture, Robert goes further in detailing the ways in which technology, photography, and the humanities can inform one another.



JW: Mr. Robert Consoli, you have provided the Ancient History Encyclopedia invaluable assistance in 2012 and it is a privilege to speak with you in this exclusive "Holiday 2012 interview." Your website, SquinchPix, is a virtual archive of European art and architecture covering the ancient, medieval, and early modern eras. It is a functional and comprehensive resource for anyone interested in European art and architectural history.

Given your website's enormous scope with over 21,000 photographs, I was curious as to how you became interested in photography and art history? Were they lifelong passions or merely hobbies that were cultivated at a later point in time?

RC: I have been taking photographs since I was a teenager in the 1960s, so I have been an active photographer, on and off, for about fifty years. I returned to it with seriousness in 2001 with the advent of digital photography. As to art history, some of my earliest memories pertain to studying images of classical paintings in the Encyclopedia Britannica and being mystified by Giovanni Bellini's famous painting of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226 CE) receiving the stigmata.

I studied Classics at both the undergraduate and graduate level, before finding employment in the computer industry sector. Now that I am retired, I have the leisure and means to take the trips to Europe that I have always wanted to take; my photographs are a product of this.

JW: The photographs displayed on SquinchPix are of excellent quality and visually stunning in unto themselves. It is no surprise to the AHE that your art has been sought out by scholars and nonprofit organizations alike. Do you take all the photographs yourself and do you have a "methodology" when approaching the craft of photography?

RC: I am very glad you like the picture quality and that they have been of use to the Ancient History Encyclopedia! When I started taking photographs for SquinchPix, I thought: "I know a lot about photography; I know a lot about post-processing and Adobe Photoshop; I have a great camera; I am the one to do this!" After a few months, I found out that none of those things were as true as I thought they were true and that I had a lot of learning to do!

What SquinchPix strives for is clarity. We are serious about providing photographs so scholars and researchers--and even students just wanting pictures for their essays--can find exactly what they are looking for. We take pictures under sometimes abominable conditions and they can require a lot of work before they are eventually posted on my homepage. As you can imagine, much time is spent in post-processing: we must balance colors, light up shadows, clean up digital noise, and painstakingly crop all photographs.

I use all Sony cameras for the basic reason that they are all image-stabilized.  Then I import my photos into Lightroom for basic changes.  From Lightroom I often drop directly into Photoshop for its more powerful masking features. We have also started using other Raw processing software such as DxO Optics Pro 8 and Photo Ninja.  I do a lot of HDR work (although its usually just to create a better brightness mask) and I use HDR Efex Pro II from Nik Software.

JW: What provided you with the catalyst to develop a web resource like SquinchPix? Moreover, can you share with us a little bit more as to how SquinchPix was founded in addition to how the website is currently organized? What user needs did you wish to accommodate given the rapid digitalization of academic and educational resources?


RC: It started in 2007 when I was looking online for pictures of the mosaic ambulatory ceiling of Santa Costanza in Rome. These are very early Christian mosaics with decidedly non-Christian symbolism and iconography. I found it absolutely  incredible that I could not locate more than a few pictures--many of them of poor quality--online. I promised myself that the next time I was in Rome, I was going to photograph them myself in order fill this glaring void. I fulfilled my personal promise and did exactly that! This episode marks the beginning of SquinchPix.

With SquinchPix, I have tried to create an alternative model to the "art book." You--and whoever has looked into the seminal Janson's History of Art--would easily recognize their old-fashioned approach: a work of art is described and then illustrated with one photograph. Put a thousand of these paragraphs and single pictures together, and you have created a methodology like that of Janson’s textbook. You cannot print 100 photographs of the Parthenon--or a site like Santa Costanza--in a work like Janson's because it is too expensive and bulky. Only in a monograph can you have more than one or two photographs of a building or a piece of art; even then, monographs are themselves rather expensive and bulky. Nevertheless, I still see this book model prevailing on the Internet. People create websites in which they dutifully recreate the book. They provide only a paragraph of description and a single photograph to illustrate their topic of choice.

We have decided to take the opposite approach via SquinchPix: we will not just give you a photograph of one capital from the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, Greece. We photographed every capital, every column base, every sculpture, every cut in the marble, and we placed it all online. Our unofficial motto is "We go to Europe so that you do not have to." We commit ourselves to this approach because we are trying to leverage the most salient feature of digital photography and the computer: it is completely free (or nearly so in theory). SquinchPix will probably always be free--although we want users to respect our copyright policies--because I am simply too lazy to monetize it.

Currently, it does not cost any more to photograph every square inch  of something than it does to take just one photograph of it. Naturally when you have dozens of pictures of a topic, you need a user interface that makes it possible to find the pictures you want. Every photograph on SquinchPix is thus extensively "keyworded" so that you can find what you want on our site or quickly find that we do not have it. No other site known to us, beyond stock photography pay sites, does this. SqunichPix's keywording feature is easily our most expensive feature, and I think this fact surprises many of our global users and partners.

JW: On that note, I was wondering if we could continue our interview with a question on how we can or ought to approach the humanities in the "Digital Age." To what extent are virtual databases and online archives like SquinchPix changing the ways in which we conduct research and understand the humanities and social sciences?

Do you consider SquinchPix part of the so-called "digital humanities" movement? An entire mode of communication has been irrevocably altered for sure.

RC: Before I begin answering those questions, I wanted to share a brief tangent. When I was studying Classics in the 1970s, the riveting scandal of the day was that the Dead Sea scrolls were not available to more than a handful of scholars: perhaps as few as five or six. It was not until the early 1990s that the Huntington Library posted digital photographs of these remarkable, ancient parchments online. Suddenly, everyone realized that an "absurd scholarly" blockade of fifty years had been broken. This taught me something about the power and potential of the Internet. The digital humanities are reshaping how we conceive, review, and organize information.

I personally see this generation of scholars returning to "curatorial work." That is, what is coming to the fore is the need for scholars to build computer databases--this is a form of "curation." I suspect that the emphasis for this generation of scholars will be to reorganize the knowledge in their fields along digital lines, and that the criterion of 'new knowledge' will undergo an implicit de-emphasis. After that, I see the emphasis once again shifting to focus on the exploitation of these databases. This will generate new insights ('new knowledge') and learning. It is not going to be quite that linear or simple, and these insights are not unique to me.

Engineers, myself included, are taught that every complex product is built in layers. One of the conceptual confusions common among academics--when it comes to the digital humanities--pertains to the organization of knowledge (databases) and the use of the knowledge. They are not the same thing! Database layers are going to come first and the user interface layers, which provide the 'cool features', are going to come later, perhaps even decades later. It will take generations for the digital and computer revolution to work its way through the broad spectrum of the humanities. This process involves so many phases that it is difficult even to define the questions about what is effective and what is not!

JW: Indeed. As time goes on, we will all have to explore new theories, methods, and practices to help clarify the multiple possibilities and tensions of digitalizing the humanities (and the social sciences as well).

To conclude our stimulating dialogue, I want to return to our preliminary discussion on photography. Do you have a favorite site that you could photograph continually and never tire of as your subject, Robert? As I understand, you are very keen on ancient Rome and Italy as a whole. What other geographical regions or sites have stimulated your imagination and colored SquinchPix?

RC: I will not play the 'favorites' game because all of it, no matter how insignificant, is part of the whole. Despite the hard work and tedious post-processing procedures, I am constantly amazed by the beauty, which emerges independently through my photographs.

Some the most beautiful shots on SquinchPix were taken in the northern Pyrenees near Puivert, and at the fortresses of Carcassonne and Salses in France. On the other hand, some of the most ordinary objects can demonstrate a surprising aesthetic appeal. A simple column base can radiate a quiet dignity and stunning brilliance simultaneously.

I will also say that one of the greatest "revelations" has been the magnificence of French architecture. Italian architecture is what I know best and what I most appreciate--I love Italy--but going to France has moved and astonished me. French edifice, regardless of period, demonstrates an awareness of the possibilities of the "plasticity" of architecture--their formal solutions, their inventiveness and variety, their sheer love of building and design. It is truly beyond anything I have seen in any other country. Your readers will, of course, form their own opinions but I am thrilled to be featuring photographs of Versailles on SquinchPix in the near future. I hope your readers will look out for them and enjoy the collection.

JW: I am sure that they shall! Regard of the pace of technological evolution, that which is beautiful exists nonetheless. Thank you so much for sharing your wealth of expertise and personal experiences with our users and readers. We also look forward to continuing our partnership with SquinchPix, and we wish you the happiest of holidays and a great start to 2013!


RC: Thank you so much, James! I wish you and the Ancient History Encyclopedia continued success!

 Images, in order of appearance, courtesy of SquinchPix:

1. A column from Glanum, near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France.

2. Bronze statue of a youth from the Antikythera shipwreck in Greece.

3. Temple of Hephaestus and Athena Ergane at the Agora in Athens, Greece.

4. Scene from the "Ara Pacis Augustae," Ara Pacis Museum in Rome, Italy.

5. Scenery near the Chateau de Puivert in Audes, France.

 

Robert Consoli was born in San Francisco, California and grew up in Hawaii. He holds a BA and MA, in Classical History as well as an MS in Computer Science. An American combat veteran of the Vietnam War, Robert recently retired from thirty years in the computer industry. Following his life-long interests in photography and European art, Robert and his partner Susan have taken a dozen trips to Europe with the purpose of creating an extensive photographic record of important works of arts, buildings, and archaeological sites. SquinchPix is the result of this work and passion. To learn more about Robert and his work, please visit his personal blog at http://robertconsoli.blogspot.com/.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be "illuminating."

All photographs are the exclusive property of the interviewee mentioned herein. They have been given to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, as a courtesy, for the purposes of this interview. All rights are reserved.
Posted by James Blake Wiener on December 17, 2012, 18:53.

Comments

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  • Joshua J. Mark wrote on 18 December 2012 at 19:30:

    Excellent interview. Very nicely done. I especially appreciated the answer involving the "absurd scholarly blockade". Well said.

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