Two interesting news items have been posted at Engadget recently about research being done at Kodak that may help to automate the digitization of historical photographs. First, new scanners have the ability to estimate the decade that a print was made based on the paper, and may someday be able to recognize watermarks or handwriting on the back. Second, a 2004 patent makes use of the red-eye effect from flash photography to determine the subject's age.
Historians, curators and archivists already have a number of techniques for dating photographs (see Joe Nickell's Camera Clues for an accessible introduction to some of them.) Digitization of any historical source, however, brings it into the realm of computation. I don't know exactly how the Kodak scanning software works, but unless it is doing some kind of physical analysis of the photographic paper itself (rather than the image of the paper) it should, in principle, work on a high resolution TIFF scanned somewhere else. In other words, it might be possible to build a spider that sifts through online archives looking for photographic prints from the 1920s.
There is a lot of interest in biometrics right now, much of it geared toward present-day concerns with security and identity. The Kodak age-detection patent suggests, however, that we may see some spinoffs for historical research. To take another example, a research group at Georgia Tech is working on programs to recognize people from their gait. It doesn't seem farfetched to imagine a system that uses biometric techniques to search through, say, old newsreel footage.
Tags: biometrics | data mining | digital history | historical photographs | new information