Chances are pretty good that somewhere on your hard drive is an image whose provenance you don’t know. Maybe it’s a picture of a Greek ostraka with a name that looks suspiciously like “Pericles” but you don’t remember where you downloaded the picture. Or maybe, there’s an unattributed statue picture in one of your slideshows for class. Or maybe one of your students doesn’t know the bibliographic data for a picture in her slideshow.
You should know how to find that information. Here’s how.
First, go to Google’s homepage, Google.com. Then find the button that takes you to Google Image. Go there. In the search bar, notice the little icon of the camera. Click on that. Upload the image with the missing provenance data, and search for the photo. My friend Craig was looking for the identification of this goddess — surrounded by crooked Sunwheels, and dogs, and gees, and bullheads. Who was she?
My almost-thirty-year old memory of such things is that this was Geometric ware from ancient Greece, but older than the Parthenon, although younger than the Trojan War. That gave me a window, of call it 900 BC to 700 BC. Turns out that this is from Boeotia, near the ancient city of Thebes (of the seven gates, and the Sphinx riddling to Oedipus on the road). It dates from 680 BC, and she’s a Potnia Theron — a Mistress of Animals, akin to Artemis. The original is in the Archaeological Museum in Athens.
We wouldn’t have known any of this without Google Reverse Image search, a Flickr user named Julianna (thank you!) , and my curious friend Craig.
But now we do.
Reflecting on this, I realized that if I’d wanted to answer Craig’s question fifteen years ago, I’d have had to find an art history library, and slog through books of Mycenaean and early Greek pottery for several hours. Instead, I had an answer in fifteen minutes… and that answer was not dependent AT ALL on what I’d previously known. In college (actually, in grad school) I spent several hundred dollars on books, and probably a few thousand dollars on tuition, in order to learn the basic framework of Hellenic pottery patterns… and in the clutch, twenty years on, I was wrong.
Google was right, and able to construct the knowledge path from the visual image alone, to the etherial data of the photographer, to the more etherial data of the physical location of the object photographed, and to the even more etherial data of where and when the original potter had worked. That’s a bizarre and alien sort of efficiency.
And yet, it’s the core efficiency of the Palace of Memory technique, for example. Your brain is much better at remembering pictures than words, and better at remembering places than abstract information. And it turns out that Google Images is capable of helping you construct those lines of connection between place and image quite rapidly.
And suddenly, the power of images becomes quite clear.
Pretty girl, all made of geometric patterns with inappropriate crooked crosses, geese, a bull’s head and a shaggy dog or two? Boeotian, 680 BC ± 10 years? Potnia Theron, or Mistress of Animals. Sure, I know her. She’s in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens… Why do you ask?
Well, sure I know that. You have to know these things if you’re a magician…
Only, you don’t need to know that. You need to be able to construct the path to that knowledge, but not necessarily what the knowledge is. There may come a time when there will be no Google to call upon. In the meantime, use it. Trace your imagery back to its sources. Learn what the external brain has to say about the images you treasured enough to keep, but not enough to keep the bibliographic data solidified.
You might surprise yourself.