Students in the course “Gateway to the Digital Humanities” recently got a chance to compare digital images against their original counterparts at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The museum staff pulled a selection of objects from storage, including an oil painting by Man Ray, a pastel by Mary Cassatt, and multiple types of photographs, including a daguerreotype, and arranged them in Zuckert classroom. Armed with iPads and high resolution digital images of all of the objects, students were asked to examine the originals, and to answer a set of questions: What is the object’s medium? How was it made, and how can you tell? What is the effect of this medium on the work’s meaning?
After looking closely at the objects, students were then asked to compare each object to its digital counterpart, and to think about the differences between them. The ensuing conversation ranged over questions of artistic technique, the meaning of abstract art, the importance of light and movement to the experience of objects, and the RGB values of pixels. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day? The fact that the mid-nineteenth-century technology of the daguerreotype remains unsurpassed in terms of how much detail it can capture.