Nicola Carboni: A data-driven approach to the study of images circulation

Pictures are the tangible traces of our visual world. They are the materialisation of a classifiable and datable object, a vocabulary of expressions that affect and reflect our history. Pictures are artefacts that bear witness to the act of human production, testifying the choices and qualities of techniques and strategies. They are produced for and within a cultural space and embed traditions, trends, and meanings through their iconographic and aesthetic choices. Pictures reflect their contemporary knowledge dynamics; they express the identity of a social landscape and serve as a communication device.

Nevertheless, the study of images is mainly concerned with their aesthetic qualities, emphasising primarily the figurative. Pictures, however, are more than that. They are artefacts that exist in space and time, and their reach is a consequence of their physical circulation. To investigate whether and how they are active or passive agents of change, we need to examine the visual dimension from a historical perspective, highlighting connections and patterns.

The presentation will showcase the work done as part of the Visual Contagions project, a study of images in globalisation. The project aims to understand how globalisation has changed our imagery by analysing the circulation of images between countries from 1890 to 1990. In the history of publishing, the 1890s heralded the emergence of a new kind of “visual economy.” Illustrations became an integral part of the daily press in the Northern Hemisphere, and illustrated magazines became widely available as photographic printing techniques became more sophisticated. These innovations brought with them new paradigms, new visions, and new critiques.

To track changes, patterns, and circulation on a global scale, the project has developed a set of data-based methods for recognising image-types (using computer vision), vectors of visually similar pictures, and clustering them based on their semantic information (using RDF & Neo4j). The analysis of the circulation has revealed axes of exchange and the focus of the publishing industry on four major topics.

Using these initial results, we will test the datasets collected and the tools developed to analyse one of the most common and interesting topics in the corpus: the car.

Cars were responsible for some of the most significant changes in urban and rural environments, introducing new paradigms and new rules. They transformed cities from pedestrian paradises into highly regulated spaces. This transformation took a long road, paved by communication campaigns and ideological battles that testify the polarisation of public opinion over this novel mean of transportation.

The history of the automobile at the beginning of the XX century, and indeed, the history of this struggle, will be reviewed with respect to the imagery present in the press, investigating pictures as a by-product of the dispute between city dwellers and car-owners. Using the digital methods developed in Visual Contagions, the presentation will demonstrate how data analysis, in the form of network/graph, interacting visualisation or simply charts, is a pivotal tool for studying global visual phenomena.

Lecture within the Data for History Lectures series
Time: Wednesday, 29 June 2022, 4.15-5.45 pm
Place: via Zoom – Request access via email (

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Digital History Berlin (Redaktion) (2022, 28. Juni). Nicola Carboni: A data-driven approach to the study of images circulation. Digital History Berlin. Abgerufen am 20. Juni 2024, von

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