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--Thiebaut (talk) 10:36, 23 July 2015 (EDT)

Back to Liberal Arts Module Page
In this module, Dana Leibsohn, Priscilla Paine Van der Poel Professor of Art at Smith College, presents her research which addresses both indigenous visual culture in colonial Latin America and trans-Pacific trade in the early modern period. She is particularly interested in the hybridity in colonial visual culture and the trade between China and Mexico, and presents how a simple image annotator tool, currently in the prototype stage, could augment the ability of students to learn information from images.

The main page for this module is available here. <p>

Transcript of Prof. Dana Liebsohn's Talk


This talk was given in April 2015, to the CSC111 class, Smith College.
Hello. My name Dana Leibsohn, and I am a professor in the Art Department, and today I would like to tell you about my research, and my interests, and show you a neat little tool that Jackie, who's here (pointing to Jackie Byun, sitting next to the stage), will present to you later.

I have to ask you to be brave, since I don't know your name. Please don't hesitate to speak up.


Let's take a look at this picture. So we have two people with opulent dresses.

There's in room with a lot of fancy stuff. Attention to that fancy stuff. We're going to come back to it and the opulent dress.


A student: they're doing similar things with their hand

DL: They're doing similar things with their hands. So there's a kind of gestural language. Good. What else

A student: they're mostly forward

DL: They are mostly forward and if I were to put words in your mouth (and Im going to) they are both matching our gaze. They are both looking at us as if they wanted us to catch our eyes. There is an intention to be seen. What else, similar?

A student: emphasis on pattern. What else?

DL: emphasis on pattern. What else?

A student: there's a use of perspective.

DL: Yes, there's a use of perspective. We can tell that things in the front of the room are in the front, and that things in the back, are, in the back. Right? Single figure. Right? What else is in here?

A student: They are both indoors

DL: Yes, they are both indoors, in a room with lots of stuff, they're women. If you were to go all the way down to the caption you'd see that the portrait are painted about the same time. Anything else you would say is similar about them? I would say that both figures look kind of static, right? They are not doing a lot of interesting thing. What is interesting is what they are wearing and all that stuff around them. Yes, in the back?

A student: They are both light skin.

DL: Do we trust the portrait and say these women were really this white? We could be wrong. because we need to thing about images as being persuasive, and in particular showing people at their best. As in their imagined best. So I wouldn't say the portraits are lying, but we have to be careful that there are representational system. How about some differences?

A student: The background, in the room, is much more detailed that the one in the left.

DL: Here we have a receding background with a red curtain, and that's the end of the room, and we see a garden, and we see quite a bit of details in all the things that this women is with. Less detail on the left, but lots and lots of pattern. I wouldn't say that one is less detailed, just that the details are in different places.

A student: The left side is brighter, the clothes are more vibrant, as opposed to the right side, which is darker.

DL: Ok. Let's talk about the right side, with more muted colors, this on the left with more dramatic contrasts in color; that bright yellow, that pop of blue. Here (on the right) there's plenty of blue of white, which contrast with the red, but it is a darker set of hues. Anything else different?

A student: This one has an even light to it

DL: The left side has some kind of even light to it, and the right has shadows. There's a sense of light being passed in. Other differences?

A student: The one on the left is more symmetrical

DL: There's more symmetrical in the left image, if you were to divide it right in the center. There's way lot of dress rather than lot of table. Anything else different? How about standing, or seated? It seems obvious, but one is from China, one from Peru, so you want to think about cultural differences. Another difference?

A student: You can't see very much of the empress' body. Her hand and feet are hidden. Whereas the Peruvian woman, you can see more about her.

DL: Do we know what kind of shoes she's wearing? Do we know what's going on? We presume that if she stood up it would be a body that we would recognize as a woman's body. It's true that we see more of the body in the Peruvian woman. It's a different approach to the display of the body. Not just the display of things. Anything else?

So one of the things to point out to you is that you a good job calling out ways of reading this image. You did a good job looking, if you will. What art historians do after all that looking is to ask "So what?", "So what they are symmetrical?", "so what is one brighter?" "So what one is looking at us?". That's kind of what the research in art history comes in. When I think about this woman in particular, I'm a latin Americanist, so I care more about Latin American images than I do about Chinese images, although Chinese images are lovely, but that's not what I'm working on.

So when I see images like these, I think, Ok, where did she get all those things? Where did that dress come from? Who made it for her? Where did the watch come from? Are the flowers from this garden? How about the table, was it imported? I'm pretty sure she didn't make it, but who would have made it for her? Was it an heirloom? These are the kind of historical questions I want to get an answer to, in order to understand this image, and this person. I'd also break down and read the little cartouche, down here, if I were to do research on this image, and find out that this woman's name is Dona Maria Belsunse Y Salasar, when she was born, who her parents were, so it tells me a little bit about where she lived.


But I'm particularly interested in that space she's in, and how she accumulated all these things. So one of the questions that I'm interested in, is one of purchasing power, which is a semi historical, semi economic question. I'm also interested in questions of desire. Why did she want a fancy blue dress like that? And I'm also interested in kind of lived experience. What is it like to wonder around the space, in a dress like that. Like how many doors can you go through, do you have to go sideways (laughters from student). What is it like to live her life? My work as I mentioned is in Latin America, and I brought you a map, I particularly focus on the colonial period of Latin America, which is when the Spaniards are in control, from 1520 to 1820, and I'm interested in this period because it's when things like slavery, globalisation, indigenous histories, commodification, all start to get ever accelerated and more important to world history.


So I'm interested in this period as one of dramatic change, and one that links lots of different types of bodies and lots of different kinds of things around the world. I'm also interested in people, who are not things, who are not queens, who are not the highest of the high. I'm interested in people who are every-day people. That's another piece of my research. So when we're looking at portraits, we're talking about people who aren't the poorest of the poor, but in Latin America, in this period, a lot of people could afford a portrait of some sort. not everybody, but lot's of people. I'm not a the lowest end of the spectrum, but not at the highest of the high. I'm interested in people whose name most people have forgotten. not interested in the great political leaders of this period, my feeling is that lots of people can work on these people. There 's a bit of excavation of history in my research.


A woman like this, is the kind of person I'm interested in. She's a mulata. A mulata was a woman who had an African parent and a Spanish parent, and she lived in Mexico City, in the mid early 18th century, we don't her name.

Is she well dressed or not well dressed?

Students: (mumbles)

DL: I'm hearing "I'm not sure if she's well dressed". Let's talk a little bit about this. She's clearly wearing a clean kind of overblouse, with an orange scarf. And this is where we need to know the codes for what it was like to live in Mexico City in the 17th century. To be that clean, tells you that you had the luxury of taking care of your appearence. This kind of orange scarf and this overblouse, were typical of African American women, so she's dressed as a kind of ethnic type, if you will. She's got some pearls on, and pearls start to tell us, what? Well the pearls she's wearing happen to come from Venezuela. In the grand scheme of colonial history, those would have been cheap pearls. We know this from research and archives, and not from the picture itself. Let's think of the picture being mixed with some archival research.

She's wearing pearls that were not the most expensive pearls you could buy, she's wearing a fair amount of them, so she's accumulated a certain amount of money, and she's decided to dress herself in jewlery.

We also know from her diary that women like her, when they would get desperate, she would pawn those pearls. She would sell them off, one by one, to feed herself, or to feed her children, to do whatever she needed to do to support herself. So there is a way in which these pearls become part of an economic circulation. They are not only an expression of fashion. So far so good?

So where would she get pearls? She didn't go down to Venezuela, she lives in Mexico City. She would have purchased them probably in the Great Market of Mexico City.


And I'm showing you a painting that shows the central plaza of Mexico City. Here are two volcanoes, here the colonial palace, the cathedral, and I hope you notice, there's supposed to be hundreds and hundreds of tents, and the indigenous people selling wares in these tents, and this is a big fancy market. This market would have sold foreign imports, foreign imports like this:


An exquisite porcelain coming from China. This is a chocolate cup that would have been used for drinking hot cocoa. The woman we have just been talking about, she would have been drinking chocolate from a cup like this?

Students: No

DL: No, she would have probably washed the cup in somebody else's house, as a servant. Since we don't her name, we don't know for sure, but that would have been a likely career for her. One other thing that is interesting, is where cups like this came from, and how they circulated in Mexico.


So I just brought a map to show you where in Mexico City, a cup like this would have come from China, to Manilla, across the Ocean, to Acapulco, and then up to that market. We're talking about a moment, of global trade, where commodities like these are moving quite freely throughout the world. This is a question of interest to me, this question of geography, and who gets to move, where. Keep that in mind, that geographical question.

In addition, one other thing I'm interested in, is how things move when they get to Mexico City. So we've talked about this woman first, for a moment, I'm showing you another portrait.


This is an indigenous woman. Her name is Dona Sebastiana, and she is dressed really, really well. She's got pearls in her hair, ellaborate necklace, pearls down her arm, silver coins, jewels, she's wearing an exquisite outfit, which is called a huipil. We're looking at her, she's 16 years old, the daughter of indigenous nobles, she quite elite. Her pearls, not from Venezuela. They probably would have been imported, either from China, or from Europe, which would have made them higher status. So not all pearls are the same. You know that from your own life. Because we're wearing lots and lots and pearls, right [laughters].

The other thing to notice, would she have gone to the market to buy pearls for herself. Not a chance. Would she pawn her pearls? Not a chance! What she's probably wearing are herloom pearls. Pearls that would have been in her family for a long time, given down from generation to generation. And if she had to buy something, she would have had to have someone purchase for her. A woman like this, of this high status, didn't go walking the streets of Mexico City by themselves. It wasn't something you did, in the 19th century.

One other thing that is interesting about this woman, is she's about to give all of this wealth up. She's about to become a nun. And we know this from archival records. At 16, shortly after this portrait was painted, she would have sold or she would have given back all of this wealth, to her father, likely, who would have donated it to this convent...


as a part of a dowry, when she entered the convent. That's the only convent she could have entered in Mexico City. She would have had to go with a dowry. We are looking at, in some ways, is a big collection of wealth that is about to get liquidated. It's opening the door for her to become a nun. She also may have taken this portrait with her to the convent, because we found it many decades later in the convent. I didn't find it, but other scholars found it in the convent. So one of the things I would like you to think about is not only the things in the portrait that circulate, the bodies, the commodities, and the objects themselves.

Any questions? Why am I telling you all this, I bet that 's a question that is in your mind.

So what do historians do as they do their research. We do a lot of research, and we're supposed to write a book. Different disciplines have different ways of sharing the knowledge. Historians write books and articles. That's a good thing to do, it's a good way to share your knowledge, and for me, writing books is a bit unsatisfying. I don't think it's a sufficient way to share one's knowledge. And I don't think it's efficient for a couple of different reasons. One reason is that books can be expensive. Second is that books do not allow you to put as many colored images or details of images in, as you might like. And the third is that books are not necessarily widely accessible. When you think about how one shares knowledge, there's a thing called the Internet, and people tend to look at things on line. When was the last time you checked something online? Two minutes ago?

So let's thing about that. Is a book the best way to share information? So one of the things I've become interested in over the years, is how does one share art historical knowledge online. About 2000 I got a grant, and I developped this Web site in collaboration with a colleague at Fordham University, and it was designed by a Smith student, a junior, she had taken 1 CS course, and a couple of art classes. She worked with us on this grant for about 5 years. The site, I hope you can see down here, is bilingual, it's in English and in Spanish.

link= vistas

One of the things I would like to point out is that the site was created with Dreamweaver, and has been used for 10 years by several universities. This site is now a bit stale, and we created a new site using Wordpress, a blogging software. Wordpress is handy because we can bring new information to the foreground, that would couldn't before. Wordpress is good because people understand how to use it. There are some things, however, that I don't like about Wordpress. One is that it is a blogging software, and my site is not about blogging. I'm trying to share information about colonial images and history, not setting up a blog. So it seems silly to use a Wordpress blog for this purpose. Therre's a missmatch. A second thing that I don't like is that it's got a kind of predictable quality. I can make my site larger, can add images, can keep adding research, but at a certain point, it's all going to look the same. Not visually creative. The third thing that I don't love about Wordpress, is that it doesn't allow for very much complexity, in a way one tells a story. We're thinking about these two women, their pearls, where they come from, their wealth, how it circulates. For me it's a really interesting type of story. And it's hard to tell the story in a Web site. I don't think it's impossible, but hard. So one of the things I've trying to think about, do I write a book? Or do I think about a digital project that could be accessible online? I'm leaning toward a digital project, in part because I think not only is it enough to do one's research, but I also think that public scholarship is a really important thing to do. And public scholarship means making it accessible, as opposed to just writing a book and selling it. So one question I would like you to think about, is this:

  • Question 1: Am I wrong? Is the book the right approach?
  • Question 2: If I'm not going to write a book, and I'm going to do something digital, where would I start? I'm guessing I could use something off the shelf (software), but I would also have to use some that is custom made, and that's where the computer science piece of this comes in.

In order to start thinking about a digital project, what I would do, is I would start to make some small prototype pieces. And I'd collaborate with someone who knows a lot more about programming than I. So one thing that happened this semester is that Jackie (this is your moment, Jackie) worked with Dominique Thiebaut and consulted with me a tiny bit, and prototyped a little piece of software that would allow one to understand images in a way that we can't currently. Jackie would you like to show us what you did?

Jackie: Yes!

DL: Do you have any questions for Jackie? When you look at this, does this look useful to you? Some of these annotations are silly, right? You know that this is a tiled floor (Laughters)… But we may want to say that it’s a tiled floor with tiles imported from China. We can elaborate the annotations. But that application could be a nice way to help people read an image. I’m thinking of the mulata, about the fact that she is wearing pearls, wearing an over dress that was typical of the period for women in Mexico City of her status. You wouldn't necessarily know that from looking. So I'm thinking that this could be a useful kind of tool to incorporate in this project, that I'm thinking I'm going to do. What I would like to do now, is I would like to imagine that we have decided that we decided that we were going to do this, some kind of digital project, and we're going to explain the kind of issues I've been talking about. I would like you to imagine that we are working in a team of 3 and I have already hired you. I've hired you to work out some interesting possibilities around 3 issues.

One of them is how to explain the circulation of commodities.

Another one is to explain status, particularly in terms of women's bodies.

And the third is to explain different modes of circulation and status. Not just saying "Donna Maria is very high status, we see that because she's wearing a silk dress."

Because we know her status is different from the other two women we have been looking at. So I would like you to form groups of three, find yourself partners. And I would like you to answer 2 questions for me.

One is: What do you think the hardest thing to do, would be, about this project.

And I'd want to know, if you can hire one worker to join the team, what skills would you want that person to have. So I'm looking for skill set, and what you think is going to be hard.

Students work in group

DL: When you think about what's going to be hard. What do you think?

Selected answers from students:

  • How to let people know about the project
  • Make the project interesting enough for people are engaged with the application.
  • How to get the research in without having to click on various images.
  • The tone of writing has to be right for the audience.
  • How to organize the information about the portrait, chunking up the information.

Some answers to the question of who should be hired:

  • A good programmer
  • Somebody who can organize the software, the server, the Web site, the interaction.
  • Somebody who has knowledge of library science, and digital archiving.
  • A graphic designer for the esthetics of the site.
  • An art historian.
  • Somebody who knows how to do marketing.