Seeing What The Eye Can’t See: Computational Analysis versus Curatorial Expertise

New imaging system can beat human eye

Often when a new or growing technology is released we are confronted with questions; traditional or modern, book or computer, digital or analogue? In part these questions result from fear, fear of the new and fear of losing the old, the known. However, in reality, these questions are a milestone, a marker of a technology which has not yet been fully incorporated into practice. One day these technologies will cease to be a question and simply transition to a method, as their predecessors did before them. Computational analysis is such a technology. With the ever enhancing capabilities of computers, followed quickly by mechanical limitations, we are asked to assess the value of two separate methodologies, the known and the new, computational analysis or curatorial expertise. I reject this choice.

Despite the rapid advance in technology and its increasing innovation there is no doubt that a computer cannot do everything a human can do. When it comes to curating images the human eye sees an image and categorises it based on a number of influential factors such as culture, social conditioning and experience. However, humans can also recognise a multiplicity of term, that one word can be synonymous or interchangeable with another is a given of human language. Therefore, for argument’s sake sometimes curatorial expertise is necessary in order to generate a comprehensive catalogue.

However, just as computers can’t do everything a human can do, humans can’t do everything a computer can do. For example, in Oxford Dr  Christoffer Nellaker and his team are developing computer vision algorithms which will analyse photographs of faces for disease-relevant phenotypes (Oxford University Innovation). Categorised under the field of eHealth Dr Nellaker’s project will use these algorithms to help medical professionals make easier and more accurate diagnoses of rare genetic diseases. The programme uses machine learning to create a multidimensional space shaped to account for deceptive variations such as lighting, pose, occlusions, and image quality. Similarly, computational imaging techniques have been applied to patients in order to provide automated decision support for experts when trying to grade the severity of pathologies such as diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration (Dessauer & Dua 39). Such technologies allow these experts to create pattern recognition which enhance their ability to make informed case decisions based on common characteristics and previous cases in a much more efficient way.

Therefore, both curatorial expertise and computational analysis have their benefits. Just as a computer cannot interpret the various interpretations associated with one image, an optometrist cannot perform fifty eye exams and accurately diagnose the severity of a pathology. This is why I don’t believe it is a choice between one or the other, it is a compromise, it is a discussion but most of all it revolves around implementation. One method does not supercede the other, both have their merits and both have their pitfalls. The real question is how do we or can ever perfectly combine the two?


Dessauer, Michael & Dua, Sumeet, ‘Computational Methods for  Feature Detection in Optical Images.’ Computational Analysis of the Human Eye with Applications. Ed. Duan Semeet et al. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2011. 39 – 88.

Nellaker, Christoffer, ‘Diagnosis of rare diseases with computational analysis of photographs.’ Oxford University Innovation ( Web. 09 December 2016.

“Finding Vivian Maier”: Ethics vs. Entitlement


Memory implies a certain act of redemption. What is remembered has been saved from nothingness. What is forgotten has been abandoned. If all events are seen, instantaneously, outside time, by a supernatural eye, the distinction between remembering and forgetting is transformed into an act of judgment, into the rendering of justice, whereby recognition is close to being remembered, and condemnation is close to being forgotten.” – Berger

“Finding Vivian Maier” is the story an impassioned flea-market frequenter striving to curate and share the work of an eccentric street photographer posing as a mid-century Mary Poppins, or so it seems. Initially intriguing, the documentary highlights the clouded existence of extraordinary art and an underappreciated artiste in modern day New York. However, as the biopic continues Maloof’s pervasive enquiries into the life of an evidently private person start to raise questions surrounding the legitimacy of his quest. As the credits roll we are left to ponder the ethics of posthumous publication and media based curation.

The question of Maier’s natural talent is not the contentious issue here. The quandary is that while her work is beautiful and provocative, a product of what could be the dying art of street photography as we know it, it was, prior to her death, a completely private collection, in every sense of the word (Coffee 93). The digitised and printed negatives on display in Maloof’s biopic were the components of an extensive hoard maintained by Maier throughout her life. With the exception of a brief reference to publication in a private letter Maier showed no indication of publicising her exhaustive collection. In fact, the documentary exemplifies and violates this sense of privacy as it details Maier’s efforts to maintain a very private persona.  If Maloof had made the argument that the negatives deserved publication, simply because of their artistic beauty and expression, or because, as Berger has argued above, they serve to remember and vindicate a past possibly forgotten, then perhaps one could find merit in that. However, this is sadly not the case. Maloof’s weak justification for publication leaves us open to the conclusion, that in this case at least, curiosity has been deemed sufficient reason for the invasion of privacy (Tallerico). This furthers the ethical debate as the curation community must ask itself if possessing data entitles us to use it, irrespective of motivation but simply out of integrity, and if pervasive biographical publications are a suitable form of cultivating human interest.

Ultimately, the ethical dilemma surrounding the work of Vivian Maier may never be known. In the absence of expressed wishes or legal documents we can only guess what the reclusive Maier would have wanted. While I can appreciate the artistic talent of Maier’s work and am grateful for the ability to view it, the probing and publication of the mysterious figure’s life seems to take the standard of permissible curiosity too far. Perhaps using artistic merit or Berger’s redemption we can justify posthumous publication to a reasonable degree. However, the exposition of a woman’s clearly private life can be deemed no more than selfish human curiosity, a fault to which we are all almost true to.




Berger, John, About Looking. New York: Pantheon Books (1980). Print.

Coffee, Kevin. “Misplaced: Ethics and the Photographs of Vivian Maier.” Museum Management and Curatorship 29.2 (2014): 93–101. Web.

Tallerico, Brian, Web. Date accessed: 08 November 2016.