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A wealth of vital information about the early days of photography could be unearthed by a computer program which mimics human decision-making. De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) has amassed a collection of hundreds of exhibition catalogues containing invaluable information about individual photographs but the images themselves are missing as the catalogues were printed before the technology existed to reproduce pictures alongside the descriptions.

DMU’s Professor Stephen Brown and Professor Robert John are investigating a form of computational intelligence known as fuzzy logic to see if it is possible to match these catalogue entries with photographs in online collections owned by museums.

Professor Brown, of the Faculty of Art and Design, said: “Many of the photographs in question appear to have survived and are increasingly accessible online through museum and gallery web sites, however precise associations between particular exhibits and images are not always clear.”

Software using fuzzy logic is able to suggest possible connections based on vague information. It mimics the human approach to problem solving but arrives at a decision much more quickly than people do.

Uniting the catalogue records with their original photographs would provide researchers with an important primary resource.

Professor Stephen Brown said: “Photographic history research is important in a range of areas of study, including social, political, economical, scientific and architectural studies. “For example, Sir Benjamin Stone, who was MP for Birmingham, was a keen photographer and collector. He was able to photograph many 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 important visitors to Parliament during that time. The information we can 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 that people used to develop their images, and how ideas were diffused through society.”

Professor Robert John, Head of the Centre for Computational Intelligence and a world-leading expert in fuzzy logic, said: “Using fuzzy logic will allow photographs to be analysed and compared with the catalogue information very quickly. “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.”

In straightforward cases, photographs and catalogue information could be matched by name, title and other details, however, the majority of cases are more complicated. Professor Brown added: “Some of the records in the catalogues are rather vague. For instance, you might have the name, but the only address given is ‘London’. If a photograph is then found with the same name but the photographer’s address is given as ‘Blackheath’ then is that the same person? It could well be but further examination is needed. Some photos were exhibited more than once over different years, and that’s fine as long as the same details are recorded for both, but very often this isn’t the case. That’s why it’s not a simple matter of matching the details of photographer X and photograph Y.”

He added: “It wasn’t uncommon for a photographer to sell or loan prints to other people who then exhibit that work under their own name, not claiming to be the photographer, just the exhibitor. There might be a photo floating around online that is listed under the photographer’s name, while we only have the exhibitor’s details.

“We could get a group of photographic experts to examine the images and the catalogue entries in order to match them up, but it would take years and would be prohibitively expensive.”

Researchers will first carry out an exploratory study to investigate the potential of using fuzzy logic to match images with the descriptions in the catalogues. If it proves to be a success, researchers hope it will be extended to a full project which will see online photo collections from museums and galleries around the world scanned for possible matches.

DMU has two online collections of catalogue records from photographic exhibitions:

Photographic Exhibitions in Britain 1839 – 1865 – see
Exhibitions of the Royal Photographic Society 1870 – 1915 – see

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