Inspiration, Digitized: The Google Art Project

Posted in News, Photography by Nathan Lee Bush on February 1, 2011
Detail of Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son"

Detail of Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son"

While photographic representation has been around for less than two centuries, two-dimensional image-making has been around for over 30,000 years. Thus, photographers have an essentially limitless trove of visual inspiration to draw on, outside of the relatively tiny history of photography. Because of the painstaking and deliberate nature of representational painting and drawing, painters arguably have the best understanding of light, color and composition. Since every content decision must be predetermined and considered, studying the great artists of history can be tremendously valuable for photographers.

Enter Google, who habitually rethinks how to apply its engineering prowess to make the world’s knowledge more accessible. Today the big G announced that it intended to do for art what it did for maps and email, specifically by creating a resource for anyone interested in image-making: the Google Art Project.

In collaboration with some of the world’s top museums, the Art Project digitized over 1000 great paintings in zoomable, ultra-high resolution, so you can ‘pixel peep’ (brush stroke peep?) masterworks by the likes of Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Manet.

You can also virtually tour the museums’ 3D floorplans, using 360-degree VR technology like that in Google Maps’ Street View. This implementation feels pretty beta at this point, since you get, at best, a pixelated approximation of most of the works. As the technology advances (and museums ease their copyright protections), however, this will surely improve. One can imagine a day when a physical trip to the museum will be a quaint reminder of the past (an admittedly sad thought, but certainly in line with museums’ central purpose of making great art freely accessible to as many people as possible).

Another nice feature is the ability to make a custom collection with annotated comments for sharing with others. Hopefully, self-curation will become a hot new means of self-expression, creating a whole new generation of art-lovers worldwide.

Overall, this new development came entirely out of left field, and feels immediately, like all great innovations, indispensable.

What do you think of the Google Art Project? Let us know in the comments!


Nathan Lee Bush is a photographer and filmmaker in New York City. His work is on his blog and site, and on Vimeo. He’s also on Twitter.

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  1. […] audio monitoring system; Nathan writes about the fantastic new online resource for art-lovers, the Google Art Project; we list an agenda of the week’s photo events from our calendar; and we encouraged our […]

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