Research

Caption: The Seymour Expedition (June 10-28, 1900) fails to reach Beijing to rescue the besieged foreigners. Images emanating from different parties show parallel, but closed and cut off worlds. They were only marginally aware of each other through imperiled messengers, and overseas, sketchy and delayed dispatches. Visual narratives evoke historical experience unique to visual primary sources that were created in the moment showing us the views of participants responding to their circumstances without the benefit of hindsight.

My research focuses on developing visual narrative, especially with the newly-digitized visual record and image collections. I study transmedial narratology within relational databases and the ways image-driven scholarship in the digital environment opens new pathways of historical research. Theories of visual thinking and observational methodologies inform a software model I am creating to facilitate image-driven digital historiography.

In a theory-practice approach, my case study explores the visual record of China's Boxer Uprising in 1900, an event that inspired unprecedented media coverage around the globe. Parallels with today's media revolution some hundred years later adds meaning to these emerging narrative methodologies.

Software, in a proposed "Visual Narrative Field" (VNF) model of narrative, supports image relationships composed by an author to illuminate historical themes and provocative sub-texts that may lie outside the structure of traditional history, breaking new ground in how we represent the past. The qualities of narrative embedded within a visual data field are experiential, immersive, and unlike linear text-based narrative, sustain a state of unresolved complexity closer to the way events unfold.

Parallax between similar image sets—such as photographs taken by two very different men within the walls of the 55-day siege in Beijing—creates a granular multi-dimensional view. Typically, editors select the “best” photos to publish, but in the digital medium the VNF model design restores rejected views and adds texture to the scene by revealing the "edited-out" periphery and pointing at the presence of the photographers. This complex visual historiography emanates from the participants themselves preserved in graphics as vibrant now as they were then.

"Traveling by the Underwood Travel System — Stereographs, Guide-Books," Underwood & Underwood stereograph, 1908.

Diverse media types suggest multiple visual narrative pathways. Stereographs, for example, appear in large numbers. Marketing materials emphasize the educational benefit of "new knowledge" gained through the unique qualities of stereographic views, using language echoed today. Book-like sets and maps position armchair travelers for a better view of the carefully photographed scenes than if they were on the scene. Other media tropes in the database similarly offer insights into the turn of the century worldview.

Mutable narrative emerges by reconfiguring images in my software design for the "Visual Narrative Field" model. In this illustration, data fields are loosely connected islands representing separate collections, for example, the 2500 images in the Boxer Uprising set and the "Visualizing China" database at the University of Bristol, UK. (image: Sebring, “Around Me: Granularity through Triangulation and Similar Scenes,” Technoetic Telos: Art, Myth and Media, 2012.)

The over 2500 images collected over the past four years will become source material for additional experiments I am making in cross-media designs including: (1) a large touch screen exploratory, immersive environment; and (2) wall prints based on an algorithm I developed to map the gestures of observation and looking. Inspired in part by Aby Warburg's "Mnemosyne-Atlas" and other visual narrative works, the prints interweave narrative pathways visualizing the collection through its stories. The algorithm, hopefully, can then be used to derive narrative threads within any digital image collection.