A while ago I thought it might be useful to put together a list of websites most valuable for visual research, either those I’ve used and favorited in the past or some recommended by others, and I posted in Facebook groups such as the Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD) asking for suggestions. Many thanks for the comments I received! .. I’m still working on the actual list and I will put it in a new folder Visual research in the Methods section very shortly.
For the time being I wanted first to provide a sketchy illustration as to why one shouldn’t confine one’s visual research to Google .. at least, not to the extent I’m accustomed to seeing from my undergraduate teaching. Don’t get me wrong! .. I don’t believe that Google Images can be .. or should be .. ignored! It all depends on how one uses the tool. For example, it is often my first port of call if I first want to define exactly what I’m looking for or to locate sites which are likely to give me better images and more information.
As an illustration, if I’ve really no idea what a ‘duchesse brisee’ is I can type it in and Google will very likely correct me if I’ve got the spelling wrong. That’s a great help in itself! Most of the images then displayed will give me a clear and immediate indication of what it is but also give me a wide choice of period interpretations. It may help at this point to change the search size from ‘Any’ to ‘Large’ because this often keeps the more informed sites and cuts down on the Pinterests and Flickrs. Now Google can be .. and should be .. left behind to refine one’s choice; checking the period and country of origin, and generally acquiring the kind of supporting information that sensible designers need to have! Here for example is the one I might have chosen ..
The website it’s from.. Antiques.com ..tells me that it’s Louis XV period or mid 18th century, carved in walnut and even that it’s attributed to the maker Pierre Nogaret. A quick Google of ‘Pierre Nogaret’ shows me many other pieces of furniture of the same feel and period. Unusually Antiques.com doesn’t provide measurements in this particular case, but many other antiques or restoration sites do for similar pieces. Here Google repeatedly offers an invaluable ‘means’ ..but not the ‘end’.
Or to take another example, if I want specific information on what a tenement dwelling in New York looked like in the 1890s I might also try Google first just for fun. In this case, because typing ‘1890 New York tenement’ could bring up too many irrelevant results it may be better to choose the ‘Advanced’ search option and type one’s search words in the ‘all words’ box. When I did this I was presented with this image from someone’s Flickr page, which looks pretty authentic and is entitled ‘New York tenement 1890’, but as often with Flickr or Pinterest there’s no other information and no indication of source so that I can verify that it’s authentic! For the serious designer this is a rather ‘blind alley’ and therefore a waste of time.
What one needs to do is either scroll down to see whether the image appears again from a more ‘official’ source in which case there is likely to be more information about it or, failing that, click on the thumbnail and use the ‘Search by image’ option in the window that appears to find other sources. Luckily this image appears on a number of reliable sites such as the Smithsonian, Britannica.com or Wikipedia and further clicking on any of these will reveal the fact that the photo comes from a priceless social document How the Other Half Lives published in 1890 by the American journalist Jacob A Riis (although initially the photos were reproduced either as line drawings or halftone and wouldn’t have had the impact they have today).
The point I am making is that someone intent on the ‘fast-food’ method might not even discover that, or the wealth of other relevant photos from Jacob A Riis that might not fall within the search terms used. Sure .. Google, Flickr or Pinterest will deliver instant results which can be effortlessly collected. It’s so easy to ‘click and save’ that even the thought of having to halt one’s happy gathering in order to check and document weighs curiously heavy!
The way we used to work as theatre designers before the establishment of the Internet could be admittedly arduous at times .. we had to go to libraries! We had to first search through catalogues arranged by subject or browse the shelves to locate books that might be helpful. If we found images we wanted to ‘keep’ we would have to take them down to the photocopier .. often just black&white, if there even was one and if it was working! But that meant that we had to become very focused and selective in our responses to images and the choice of them! We had to make conscious notes of where we found things, rather than trusting a computer to save that info ..which meant we were accustomed to reading and digesting it first! The books we found the images in would usually tell us all we needed to know about them and suggest yet other sources in their bibliographies. More often than not, writers were both circumspect and thorough when it came to the printed word! All this could be time-consuming, but on the other hand we could assess the quality and relevance of a book in mere seconds, just by flicking through it .. try doing that with a website!
Jacob A Riss understood not only the value but the necessity of ‘hard graft’ .. as a humanitarian, a pioneering journalist and a documentary photographer he was essentially optimistic, driven and persistent! Any serious designer, especially for theatre/film/television, has to operate in much the same way as an investigative journalist like Riss .. leaving few stones unturned. The problem with the Internet is that there are far too many pebbles!