Louisa Wood Ruby

Head, Photoarchive Research | April 25, 2016


Lousia Wood Ruby is a traditional Art Historian by training. She began her life in academia at Harvard University, studying art history with a focus in East Asian Art. The summer after her junior year Ruby began to look for a job and ended up at the Fogg Art Museum‘s drawing study collection. Here, she had access to a large collection of old master drawings, which she regularly showed to other students and researchers. This position allowed her to fell a greater connection to old master artists as she safeguarded their legacy, frequently entering into their sacred space. Ruby’s undergraduate position at the Fogg Museum forever altered her focus; shifting the aspiring scholar from East Asian art to Drawings from the Northern Renaissance. After taking a couple years off from academic life to focus on her job at the Childs Gallery in Boston, Lousia decided to get her Masters in Art History at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. She completed her thesis on the 16th century flemish landscape drawings of Paul Bril (1554-1626). Deciding she wanted to work as a curator, Ruby continued her education at the Institute aiming to receive her PhD. During this time she was able to boast of many part-time or project based jobs at institutions such as the New York Public Library’s Prints and Drawings department, where she was tasked with producing an exhibition on the history of paper making. This job soon became full-time, causing her to slow down on her coursework. However, she did continue on to her disarming, deciding to elaborate on her masters thesis, becoming the first to complete a catalogue raisonné for Paul Bril, which was subsequently published. In order to produce an extensive study on the artist Ruby visited FARL’s photo archive to conduct research, first introducing her to the space, in addition to traveling abroad to view the works in person.  After graduating, Lousia worked at more project based jobs at various drawing collections — including, NYPL’s Avery Drawings, Hyde Collection‘s works of the  Five Continents, and a selection of drawings at the New York Historical Society — before gaining a full-time position in FARL’s Photoarchive in 2000.

Holding an array of photographs of artwork over times, highlighting their various states and conditions, FARL’s Photoarchive was actually the Frick’s first collection. Dating to 1920, Ms. Frick had seen a similar collection in London and wished to have her own library for art historical photographs. This library was first housed in the mansion’s bowling alley, in the basement, but was later relocated due to condition issues. During the birth and growth (1920-1960’s) of the collection Ms. Frick hired photographers to go to small museums, galleries, and private collections to photograph its housed works so that researchers could at least view the works through reference photographs. In addition to sending photographers up and down the East Coast, Ms. Frick also hired international photographers like Sansoni (1896–1974), who took a lot of pre-War images in Italy, and A.C. Cooper, who visited various auction houses in London providing Ms. Frick with both the prints and negatives of his captures. Ms. Frick would then get the provenance information from researchers and file it with the images. Since Ms. Frick made it her mission to harvest all of this praised research material, the Photoarchive now focuses on getting that information out to their users.

These records first went digital by the sponsorship of an Italian couple who wished to digitize around 18,000 photographs in the Photoarchive’s collection related to anonymous Italian works. This arrangement suited the archive for some time, working on various parts of the collection depending on what grant funding was avaliable. Today the archive houses over 1.1 million images, and is systematically divided by its respective schools for digitization. Digitization of these art historical materials along with the entry of Stephan Bury as the Chief Librarian of FARL, has pushed the department into the world of Digital Art History. Bury questioned the future of the Photoarchive upon his arrival, stating that the computer today is not yet up to the standards of Art Historians. As it stood there was not a platform for the user to manipulate the images and Bury felt that FARL as a unit should really be on top of this current issue, forming the DAHL and working with NYU to create “Aries”, a photo manipulating tool that will aid the art historian in viewing multiple works at once. The Photoarchive department plays a key role in the success of DAHL; Lousia and her colleagues frequently attend various symposiums and conferences related to DAH in addition to working on dataset projects which require them to create a searchable database which will answer questions of Art Historical interest while also providing object based information such as condition and location. While Ruby admits that there is still ample room for learning in the newly developed world of DAH, she believes that it will become a significant field in Art History. Various initiatives have been formed, including one to merge all the current photoarchives into one searchable platform. This consortium consists of 14 photoarchives, including FARL’s, who together worked in creating this dream. Launching in May of 2016 the institutional consortium will launch “Pharoes”, the single platform for digital photoarchives. However, to complete this task each of the institutions will need to convert their own data to linked open data which will take time, meaning the platform will be updated in waves.


Above: A Forest Pool, Paul Bril, 1595-1600