DH Event on campus Speaker Series

Report on “Digital Humanities, Data Analysis and Its Possibilities”

As part of the DH Speaker Series, I attended the talk by University of Richmond Assistant Professors Lauren Tilton and Taylor Arnold in which they discussed data analysis and how they have used it in different ways in their digital humanities research. Lauren and Taylor’s presentation of the critical role of statistics and data analysis in DH was really interesting. They pointed out that statisticians often just throw out data without analyzing the information critically and presenting their findings in an interesting manner to a larger audience. They posed the question: how do we communicate our results to a PUBLIC audience? I think that their project, titled Photogrammar, is an awesome website that effectively communicates statistical analysis in a really cool way.

Taylor and Lauren were interested in analyzing the Library of Congress’ archive of photography from the FSA era. The photographers hired by the FSA were tasked with documenting poverty, largely in the American South, during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Taylor and Lauren worked closely with the Library of Congress staff in order to turn their photographic collection into a user-friendly database. They computed the data and began to analyze the statistics. Lauren said their analysis caused a “fundamental change in our understanding of this collection” and opened up a whole news series of questions. For example, the data analysis showed that the number of FSA photos from the war era and the number from the New Deal era are actually quite similar. Many people associate the FSA photographers with the Great Depression and the New Deal, and may not even know that the FSA continued their photographic endeavor into World War II.

The database is super user-friendly and much easier to find what you are really looking for than the search engine on the Library of Congress webpage for the collection. On Photogrammar, you can find images based on the county they were photographed or even find images based on color palette. In the most recent segment of the project, Taylor and Lauren used a computer software to identify faces and certain images in a photograph, looking for repetition or patterns, in order to rebuild entire photo strips from a specific photographer’s camera. This feature is amazing because it allows the user to track the photographer’s line of vision, tying the visual images and story of their production together.

I became really interested in photography after taking a History of Photography course during my sophomore year winter term. Taylor and Lauren’s discussion of their project was so helpful because it showed me how data analysis (a term that somewhat intimidates me) can help people better understand and engage with a topic in the humanities. Photogrammar answers so many research questions, just through the different features of its interactive map of the U.S. It lets me see the main regions that Walker Evans photographed in or the counties that were photographed the most during the Dust Bowl. As Lauren and Taylor stated in their talk, photographs can tell us a lot about the culture and background of an era. Their project provides a simpler yet more interesting way of understanding these photographs and the culture that surrounded them.

-Hayley Soutter, DH Undergraduate Fellow

This program is made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


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