Whew, Digital History is Tough

It is the end of the spring semester, 2014, and I have been soundly humbled by the rigors of digital history. Learning to code was a travail for me, certainly. However, I realize the utility of digital history in informing and reaching out to a much wider audience than I might ever be able in print and academic conferences (if I ever went to any of the latter). Therefore, I will continue to not only maintain my new, made-from-scratch website, but will also update it and use it as I develop my dissertation and later academic projects. Please do look at the fruit of my labor – it is not the most elegant site, but it will do… for now. The site is http://www.acityofchameleons.com.

One last note – I do want to thank my fellow students in the digital history class, who have been so patient in assisting me, correcting me, and keeping me on the straight track. Any faults on the website are mine alone.

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Even Cropping and Resizing Can Reveal History


Here’s a fun example of how even cropping, resizing, and comparison can reveal sometimes unnoted history.  The two paintings above are by Jose F.X. Salazar y Mendoza, a Mexican painter who moved to New Orleans late in the Spanish period and painted a number of fine portraits. He was assisted by his daughter, also a painter.  His two subjects here were Charlotte Perrault and her husband Charles Trudeau, who had both evidently left British-occupied Canada in the 1760s and come to New Orleans.  As indicated by their clothing in these paintings, the Trudeau family prospered under Spanish rule. Charles, now known as Don Carlos, became the Spanish Surveyor-General for the Louisiana colony.

Take another look at the paintings, crop them, resize them, and switch the order.


Note that Don Carlos and his wife are happily playing together at a dice game.  The table, the game board and pieces, and even the chairs match. This seems to indicate that Salazar originally painted the couple together, but the painting was later sliced in two, perhaps for portability, or perhaps because someone later thought that a couple playing dice was simply scandalous. In any case, here is the very confident and presumably happy couple back together as Salazar saw them. Of note, given Salazar’s painting of the large Montegut family, other paintings of Spanish-era father-son/mother/daughter pairs, and the likelihood that the Trudeau portraits were a single painting, Salazar clearly deserves some recognition for his ability at “group” portraits, especially when compared to his North American contemporaries.

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A Little More Finding History via Photoshop

Last week, I claimed that the daguerreotype of an anonymous Man with Cat included a ball of yarn, a table, and a dead bird. I’d like to continue that quest for understanding via Photoshop by showing you another daguerreotype I cleaned up and tinted.  This one is of a quite important person in his time, indeed, some claimed the richest man in North America then – John McDonogh.  A Baltimore merchant come to New Orleans early to make his fortune, he was very hard-working and notoriously parsimonious. He made money on the boards of many early corporations and in land speculation.  When he died at quite an old age, the nation was stunned to find he had left his entire fortune to the children of Baltimore and New Orleans, to establish a public school system in each city. (That’s why both cities had multiple McDonogh High Schools.)

Now that you know that background, look at these photos of McDonogh.  First, the untouched one, then my cleaned up, tinted version.

Image Image

Do you see what I see on the left of the daguerreotype?  There seems to be a small apparatus on a pedestal. Now, it was not unusual for scientists to get their pictures taken with the tools of their trade (microscopes, telescopes, a cadaver, etc.) or for lawyers to do the same (big books). But in this case, McDonogh was imaged with… what? I don’t know.  Two pieces of something – perhaps wood or metal – are reflecting the light, both vertical, then bent at a 90 degree angle to the left. Two thin, upright books on a small pedestal or stand – perhaps.  However, another possibility might be a very early telegraph – see the two images below!


I’ve looked at hundreds of daguerreotypes on-line and have not seen any such device imaged. I have also not seen the distinctive chair back seen behind McDonogh in any other image. Was this image taken in McDonogh’s home? Many daguerreotypes were not taken in a studio at all, but instead in the home of the sitter or another location – and he was a very rich man, indeed. Is that a telegraph at his side, an indication that he or the photographer was very interested in the future? What paper was he holding – anything specific, as was often done in paintings then? What would a closer look at the original daguerreotype of McDonogh reveal?

History and Photoshop – I like this part of the class!!!  

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Do You See What I See? I See a Dead Bird

Am reasonably enjoying Photoshop – it certainly is useful in cleaning up old photographs, with which I will have to spend some time for my dissertation. I don’t know if we were supposed to send Man with Cat for peer review this weekend, but I did do some work on it and attach it for your group review.  Which brings us to a couple of details the Photoshop cleanup revealed:

  • The cat does not have its claws in the sitter’s leg; it is holding a ball of yarn on the sitter’s leg.
  • It is more clear that the sitter has his left arm on a table.
  • It looks like a dead bird is laying below the sitter’s left elbow, on the table.
  • I asked my son what he saw and he instantly replied, “A dead bird”, as well. This might deepen our view of the photo – presumably the bird was killed by the cat and brought to its owner? This complicates any idea of a simple guy-loves-cat, this-is-a-luxury-pet relationship. If it is a dead bird, than the man is proud of (and perhaps amused by) his cat’s hunting abilities. An even more interesting choice for a photograph – rather than a man with shotgun (remember Paul’s photo?), this is a man with cat.Image

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Scarlett: After all, tomorrow is another day…

Like many Southerners, my hero is really a heroine – Scarlett O’Hara.  After stumbling through the first month or so of this course, am trying to keep Scarlett’s words in mind.

Following Monday night class, I printed off several of your web pages with source files and spread them out on the table for comparison.  Next, I did what any good Southerner would do and went to the store and got beer.  No, actually, I got Cherry Garcia ice cream. And crackers and cheese. And beer.  I went to bed at 5:30 am, and got up at 7:00 am and went to work.

I tried learning lessons from your webpages – I apologize, but the lessons only went so far, and my layout is… well, it’s a set of stairs, sort of like that Escher print that just keeps going upon itself into infinity. I started with Beth Garcia’s webpages, because it seemed to match with Cherry Garcia and I liked her typography page.  Paul’s pages both gave me lots of tips; Ben’s looked sharp and appropriately Spartan for his topic, but didn’t work for my colorful chameleon concept.

Candidly, I do not understand when to stick in <div> and <div class> and why the body is supposed to be bigger than the wrapper (it is, isn’t it?) and how to get an image to sit next to text, and many more questions.  I keep puzzling out answers to some of that from your sheets, and I will try to use Lynda.com.  In the mean time, if anyone wants to take a look (yes, you may grimace as you look), please feel free to look at the revised version at www.acityocchameleons.com.  If you click on the block entitled “The History”, you will see my typography assignment. Any suggestions would be deeply appreciated.  I suspect some of the mistakes are simple – but am just not figuring them out.  In the mean time, will keep struggling along, because, well, Monday is another class…

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Clio II – The Expense and Alternatives of Digital History

Now that I’ve struggled through the first few weeks of Digital History, I look back upon my odyssey to date, like Odysseus himself, and consider my losses.  During this past month, I’ve:

  • Rented a movie I am unlikely to ever watch again (Helvetica)
  • Downloaded (at cost) a software I am unlikely to ever use again (Dreamweaver)
  • Purchased a host and website… okay, I will probably continue to use the website.
  • Accidentally purchased a website template I will probably never use.
  • Downloaded a few applications – Dropbox, 960.gs, etc. – that I will probably never use.
  • Angered and frustrated my teenage son by loading all these things onto his computer, monopolizing the computer myself all night, and forcing him to read and pick up his room.  The likely alternative for his sanity and mine is for me to purchase a laptop and load Dreamweaver et all onto that.  But how much will that cost?
  • Spent many sleepless nights completely stressing about how to ftp files and pad my boxes, or something like that
  • Paid a church friend $160 to come over and show me how to ftp files.  She may be from the church, but consultants have to eat, too…
  • Annoyed my classmates with the most foolish questions
  •  Spent hours of my holiday with members of “the coven”.

I must say that, given my choice, I would have much preferred to have spent that money and stress on, say a research trip to Spain.  There, I could have:

  • Watched a movie – any movie – featuring Penelope Cruz
  • Downloaded a wide variety of tapas and sangria
  • Forgotten the name of my teenage son, even as he played “Shogun: Total War” to his heart’s content
  • Spent the most relaxing nights in the cafes and archives and cafes of Seville, agonizing only over the choice of wine with octopus
  • Sent a postcard to the coven

Like Odysseus, I look back and I see that the distant past was so pleasant, and a voyage with Clio… well, it just hurts my head…

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Clio II – What Would You Color New Orleans? Your Own Life?

As I begin my first html coding, I am struck by the myriad of design decisions required to create your own website, whether it be for early New Orleans history (my PhD focus) or the autobiographical website desired for my Clio II course.  One of the most basic decisions is: What do I color New Orleans history?  Do I give a website on New Orleans the popular Mardi Gras colors, which, given they were those of the Russian royal family and were adopted in the late 1800s, have absolutely nothing to do with early New Orleans?  Do I use the bright reds, yellows, blues, and whites of the competing Spanish, French, Americans, and British – or are those colors too primary, too laden with modern nationalistic clichés?  Perhaps something more subtle: nuanced, darker shades of reds, blacks, and browns, indicating a city old and noble?

And then there’s that autobiographical website project.  I began my life on the website at its beginning, and don’t intend to go far into what I still consider a valiant but flawed effort, probably ending in high school.  It is meant not to be about me, but rather about how a boy from a coastal village, even in his youth, can find history to be inescapable, brutally real, cinematic, and intensely personal.  Some of the images I want to use include my Weekly Reader memorializing JFK, Friendship 7 coin bank, my brother and I dressed as rebel soldiers, Dad in Vietnam, and the like.  What colors do I give those days of my life, to make them appear not merely whimsical, but part of history?  Pottery Barn for Kids colors boy’s rooms in blues and greens and deep reds – but how do you color years growing up in military bases and around ships, handling old love letters and Bibles, reading in the Wonder Years of the 1960s, watching demonstrations and wars?  And what, then, will be the font, or fonts, of a life mixed of beaches, baseball, and history?  What do I color my early life?  What would you color your own? 

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