Unit 4: Describing Images



This is a view of the landslide that bisected Riverside Avenue in Burlington. The landslide occurred in the fine-grain glacial marine and glacial lake sediments that underlie gravel here. Other similar images show the down dropped block on which the garage sits. Rumor has it that the slide was triggered by a leaking drain pipe from the city landfill. It appears to be winter as the trees have no leaves. Note the cement pipe sitting on the road and the barricades to prevent cars from coming close to the slide. Winooski is in the distance. The image is from Special Collections, from the James Detore Photograph Collection, and is dated December 8, 1955. The sleeve title says "Riverside Ave. Washout, Thomas Martello, House and Garage, Taken for American Fidelity." The originals are 4 x 5 negatives. To see this image in the database, click here.

Today, we will practice describing images. The Landscape Change Program archive is made up of thousands of images obtained from dozens of collections and covering an extremely wide range of subjects. There are images of mountain landscapes, city streets, and churches. There are images of granite quarrying, waterfalls, eroding landscapes and clearcutting of forests. There are pictures of floods and barns and barns in floods. While the images themselves are visually powerful, the archive tries to offer the viewer more than just the image. We try and offer some description to help viewers understand what is going on in and around the image.

Description is not only useful for the viewer, it's critical for finding images. Remember the search page? With it, you can search any text associated with any image in the archive. If image captions are well written and inclusive, such searching lets you find images that otherwise might be tough to find using date, location, or even keywords.

The issue here is that we are searching for an image, a visual representation, using only words. For example, imagine that you are a musician and you are really into tubas. We don't have a keyword for "tuba" but if you use the search page or the quick search (from the header) you could search for music and find several images, one of which appears to have a tuba in it. Try it! Ah, but if you read more carefully. It's not a tuba but a baritone. Ah, the power of good captions!

There are many levels of image description and each of us brings our own interests and experience to the process. As a geologist, I see rocks and soil. Other staff in the Landscape Change Program are ecologists and see very different facets of the landscape. Historians we work with have yet another view. For a different view on image description, check out the Landscape Change Program image description page by clicking here.  This is also a good time to review the history of items you might see in the images by reviewing the dating pages by clicking here.

So, how do you describe an image? I start by imagining that I am describing the image to someone who is blind and cannot see. What is the major theme of the image? What objects does it contain? Can you figure out what season it is? Are there people in the image? What are those people doing? The trick to good and accurate image interpretation is observation with a minimum of interpretation.

Let's try describing an image together. Below is an image from Vershire, Vermont in 1897. We obtained the image from the Vermont Historical Society and it had no other information associated with it. I am going to lead you through my process of describing this image.


To me, the most important element here are the ox teams and carts so I start my description this way

This image shows a horse team, and two ox teams. The horse team is hitched to a four wheel cart. One ox team is hitched to a two wheel cart and the other is unhitched. The carts appear empty. The teams are on a poorly defined dirt road. In the foreground is grass cut short with a few stones interspersed.

I continue with related information.

A man is sitting in one of the carts and another man is standing next to the unhitched team carrying a short stick or whip. There is a woman in the background with a girl near a bridge.

Mentioning the bridge, leads me to the stream.

The wooden bridge crosses a stream that is dammed near the left side of the image. The dam is made of logs and to the left of the dam is a connected building. It is likely as sawmill because cut lumber is stacked all around the building and there is another pile of lumber just over the bridge by the road.

Now, I cross the road in my description and move up the hill into the background.

The road heads up a gentle hill to a farmhouse near the right side of the image. Lumber is stacked along the fence that borders the road. Behind the house is a barn and several outbuildings. They sit in open fields with what appear to be some fruit trees (apple?) just behind the house. There are some lone trees in the upper fields. The fields stretch up an increasingly steep hill to the ridgetop which is forested. There are walls or fences dividing the fields.

Finally, I try and ferret out the season using whatever clues I can.

It is either fall or spring as the trees have no leaves but the stream is flowing and there is no snow.

In addition to describing images using paragraphs, we also use a keywording strategy based on a series of words approved by the Library of Congress. The process is a bit tedious and the language might be a bit less than familiar to some of you but let's give it a shot. Open up the keywording web page by clicking here. It's really easy to use. As you scroll down, click on the box for every word that applies to the image you are describing. When you are done and have arrived at the bottom of the page, click "submit" and a new window will open listing your selected keywords. You can copy and paste from that window!

Keywords can help you. Try clicking here and viewing this image of UVM after a big storm.  Pity those elm trees.  Now, you are excited to see more images featuring storms and winds.  Move down the page to the list of keywords.  They are blue which means they are active links.  Click on the one that reads  "storm winds".  Now, you will see many other thumbnails that show images of wind damage from storms.  Keywords are a great way to see other images. You can also search by keywords using the map/keyword search in the header bar or by clicking here

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