De Montfort catalogue

Picture: Many photographic journals, including this one held at De Montfort University Leicester dated 1895, were only able to show sketches of the pictures they described

Researchers hope to uncover vital information about historic photographs and the photographers who captured them by using computer technology to match photos held online, with printed records.

Researchers at De Montfort University in Leicester are trialling software they hope will enable them to link photos held in online collections with crucial data listed in hundreds of exhibition catalogues amassed over the years.

The catalogues were published before technology existed to print images alongside the descriptions – meaning it is not clear which pictures they refer to.

In many cases exhibition catalogues were only able to show a drawing of the photograph in question.

The researchers hope to match catalogue entries with collections of pictures held online by museums worldwide, by scanning the images using a form of computational intelligence known as ?fuzzy logic?.

They say it would take a group of photographic experts years to complete such a task and it would be ?prohibitively expensive?.

The software suggests possible connections based on vague information in a similar way to the human brain, but much faster.

Professor Robert John, Head of the Centre for Computational Intelligence, said: ?The benefits of this type of technology are that it can make decisions much more quickly than humans and it is not restricted to a simple ?match/no match? answer.?

?Many of the photographs in question appear to have survived and are increasingly accessible through museums and art gallery websites, however precise associations between particular exhibits and images are not always clear,? said Professor Brown, of the Faculty of Art and Design.

The software could, for example, search for a photograph online, using the location of the picture named in the catalogue.

This detective work could eventually enable information about the image, the photographer behind it ? and the techniques they used – to be traced and matched.

The university says that uniting the catalogue records with their original photographs would give researchers an ?important primary resource?.

It is set to analyse catalogue records stretching back to the birth of photography in 1839, which it holds online.

Brown added: ?Photographic history research is important in a range of areas of study, including social, political, economic, scientific and architectural studies.

?For example, Sir Benjamin Stone [1838-1914], who was an MP for Birmingham, was a keen photographer and collector. He was able to photograph leading scientists, politicians and dignitaries and significant historical and royal occasions ? such as the funeral of Queen Victoria.

?He was one of the first people allowed to take photos in the Houses of Parliament and if not for him, we wouldn?t have pictures of many of the important visitors to Parliament during that time.

?The information we gain from this project could be useful in so many ways. It could tell us about the types of people who were taking photos at that time, the subjects that were popular, the techniques people used to develop their images, and how ideas were diffused through society.?

Researchers say that if their initial work is successful it will be extended to a ?full project?. This could see online photo collections being scanned for possible matches from museums and galleries worldwide.