Library Debuts Interactive Map of 20th-Century Frick Photo Expeditions

The Frick Art Reference Library’s founding collection is the Photoarchive, which contains more than one million reproductions of works of art in the Western tradition produced from the fourth through the twentieth centuries. This resource, one of the first public institutions of its kind established in the United States, was critical to the development of the discipline of art history in North America.

A key innovation in the early evolution of the Photoarchive was the dozens of photographic expeditions that founder Helen Clay Frick organized between 1922 and 1967 to record significant and rarely reproduced works of art in North American collections. A new interactive digital map (below) is now available that enhances the discoverability of these materials and visualizes the scope of the campaigns. The map, a product of a collaboration launched in 2014 with the Center for Advanced Research of Spatial Information (CARSI) at Hunter College, traces the movement of library staff and photographers as they traveled across the United States and recorded paintings and sculptures in private homes and little-known public collections, works of art that in many cases remain unpublished.

With this new research tool, scholars and students are able to identify the locations that library staff visited and access digital images of the works of art they photographed with links to accompanying documentation. Through this platform, users gain a more complete understanding of the content of each collection, insight that is not afforded by searching the digital archive or the library’s online public-access catalog alone. Seeing the physical locations of these works when they were photographed by library staff allows for an increased appreciation of the Photoarchive’s unique resources, which offer rich information regarding North American art of the colonial period through the early twentieth century as well as local collecting practices and the history of taste in the United States.

The Frick Photograph Campaigns in North America produced approximately 35,000 negatives, and the library’s goal is to map this entire collection—a task that will keep staff busy for the next several years as we develop the spreadsheets that support the tool. This first iteration of the digital map, however, makes it very clear that this project offers a new perspective on the Photoarchive’s rich holdings documenting North American collections, one that will benefit future scholarship.

For more information about the Frick Photograph Campaigns, please visit the Photoarchive’s webpages.

The Development of the Online Map

The development of this online tool began with determining how to extract and depict the spatial narrative contained within the Photoarchive’s catalog. Image provenance data was collected and then grouped into trip datasets by year, with each record corresponding to a work of art photographed during a specific research tour. Information such as the bibliographic reference number, collection or institution housing the original work at the time of the trip, the collection’s address, and the name of the photographer were obtained for all the images and stored in a series of Microsoft Excel tables. Additional image metadata, such as the title of the painting or sculpture, the artist, and the object’s date of creation, were obtained using a custom web-scrapping script written using Python 3.7. In total, this process yielded 1,341 negatives spread across nine trips that took place between 1933 and 1961.

Text-based address data was geocoded (that is, converted to latitude and longitude coordinates) using batch geocoding services and, when necessary, manual address confirmation using satellite images and historic maps. The coordinate data was added to the trip datasets and enabled the image data to be accurately represented in the interactive online map. Once coordinate locations for each image had been established, the nine completed datasets were merged into one GEOJSON file that would house the source data for the application. Several available frameworks and technologies were considered for this project; after consideration and testing, the open-source web mapping JavaScript library Leaflet was selected. The primary reasons for selecting Leaflet were cost, flexibility, and ease of implementation. The filtering and clustering functionality in the application enabled by the marker cluster plugin and tag filter plugins were inspired by the Bird’s-Eye View of America project developed at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Screenshot of a digital map featuring a painting in a private collection in New Orleans.
Screenshot of the digital map locating a portrait photographed in 1933 in a private collection in New Orleans, Louisiana

In designing the web map application, the main objectives were to make a tool that was intuitive, easy to use, and integrated with the Frick digital catalog. The point clustering provides a means of keeping the map clean and uncluttered at all zoom scales. The tag filter tool enables the user to explore image data by region and year and trace the path of each research trip. The popups for each point location provide a simple and clear display of the image and important metadata and allow for easy navigation to the Primo catalog and related Photoarchive resources. To date, this project has provided an application framework that is lightweight and easy to alter and enhance.

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