Reinterpreting Public Domain Images

The recent announcement by The New York Public Library (NYPL) that it is to share more of its public domain (PD) images with the public has prompted this short entry on PD images and their use. PD images are, as the description suggests, images that have no copyright attached to them and are therefore “free” to be used by the public in any means, including commercial reselling or reworking. Images may have never been copyrighted, the copyright may have expired (not renewed) or they were donated into the public domain.

Despite the NYPL’s recent announcement the largest source of easily available PD work, to my knowledge, remains the US Library of Congress (LOC) with over one million searchable items arranged in collections, out of a total of 15 million items. This provides a fascinating source of information, not only for the historian, but also for the artist to use either directly or as inspiration.

Like many others, I have used PD images in several works on my art site. I find the LOC site easy to navigate and almost addictive as I search through items. Not everything that can be viewed on screen is always downloadable, but often times large .jpegs are available and even very high quality .tiff files, which allows for some excellent artistic opportunities.

Generally speaking I don’t like to simply use the image “as is” but a quick google reverse image search shows that many people do just that, as they are legally allowed to. Instead I prefer to work on the image to some degree.This may mean just “cleaning up” the work, by removing scratches, dust and watermarks, and other artifacts, or it could be recovering details lost in the original, such as with this 19th century poster from the age of ballooning:


Other approaches I take may include selectively recoloring the image to add emphasis to an aspect of a photograph. Many people colorize PD images with varying degrees of artistic interpretation, often over doing it, in my opinion. I prefer a subtle color application, as as I have achieved with this photograph of Santa Claus but, as with all art, it’s really a matter of personal preference.


Finally, there is an opportunity to create a completely new artistic interpretation by blending imagery together to tell a new story. By way of example, I used the famous LOC image of an aging Geronimo together with four other photographs taken from his era and just thereafter to create this unique composite image to show how much America changed during the lifetime of one of its indigenous people:


Note that by creating a completely new artwork, involving significant artistic interpretation and work the resulting image is no longer in the public domain and is now copyrighted by the artist (that’s me, folks).

Even if you don’t get as hooked on this source of history and art as I have done, it a least provides a fascinating way to see images of bygone days whilst browsing the library catalogs from your laptop.


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