Meet Chris Edwards, the Getty’s first-ever imaging and digital media architect. Chris began his new role this April after nearly three years as head of digital services at the Getty Research Institute, where he oversaw the digitization of its vast trove of books and special collections materials. Chris came to the Getty from the Yale University Libraries, where he was the digital projects manager, and Beinecke Library digital studio production manager before that.

A photographer, tinkerer, and self-described “imaging guy,” Chris is as enthusiastic about process—ask him about improving inefficient workflows!—as he is about innovation in 3D scanning and technical imaging.

I asked Chris about the new role (which comes with its own acronym, by the way), and what projects we can expect to see from the Getty in his first year.

You’re the Getty’s new Imaging and Digital Media Architect—IDMA for short. What does the IDMA do? 

The IDMA is a new role to help coordinate and facilitate digitization and media creation all throughout the Getty. I’ll be acting as an imaging expert and advisor.

I’m going to have input in imaging processes and policy across all parts of the Getty—archival imaging, conservation imaging, library imaging, museum imaging—and that’s hugely exciting.

Before we get into the details, give us a 30-second Digitization for Dummies.

Digitization is creating digital surrogates of original objects—artworks, archives, books. It’s not scary or hard, and you don’t need the latest and greatest technology to have a viable product. What you do need is a clear idea of what content you have, what you want your product to be, and who it’s going to serve.

With digitization, metadata is hugely important: A record without an image is more valuable than an image without a record. Metadata teams are the unsung heroes of digitization.

And is the Getty digitizing its entire collection?

The J. Paul Getty Museum is currently in the process of completely digitizing its collection over the course of several years. The Getty Research Institute, however, cannot feasibly do the same, due to the nature of archival collections and their sheer size and volume.

Why was the IDMA role created?

At the Getty collaboration is encouraged, which will raise the bar of what we do and allow us to help the broader cultural heritage community.

Now is a time where a lot of the individual processes in the field of digitization are known. We know how to do them, so we’re all looking at next steps. A position like this exists in part to be a trend-spotter, to help differentiate between fads and viable emerging technologies. Like Jim [Cuno] says, the Getty can do anything it wants, just not everything. This position will help to focus the talents and energies into areas that fit with the Getty’s priorities.

What are the Getty’s imaging priorities right now?

Machine learning and computer vision are huge priorities right now, along with 3D capture and delivery and multispectral and hyperspectral imaging. Technical imaging is a big area of interest for the Getty, and we’re going to be seeing a lot more of it.

What will your first steps as IDMA be?

Part of this job will be to understand what the four Getty Programs are doing and what we’re already doing well. I’ll be meeting with all parts of the Getty that focus on imaging and media creation to understand how we can start to connect. I’ll work with the Programs to figure out how they interact with their imaging and data repositories, and also how we interact with each other’s repositories.

One of the first projects I’ll be jumping into is the digitization of Ed Ruscha’s Streets of Los Angeles project, which captures every single inch of several L.A. streets from the East Side to the ocean, on both sides and in multiple timelines. We’ll be photographing 110,000 negatives, providing GIS coordinates for each image, and OCR’ing the contents—like street and shop signs—to generate metadata and keywords. The possibilities for scholarship in this project are huge, and I’m really looking forward to working with the Ruscha team.

Part of your new role is serving as a consultant to the cultural heritage community broadly. What does that look like for you?

There’s a real hunger in the cultural heritage community for standards and processes, so I’d like to document our processes and make them available as guides: how we capture books, how we photograph paintings, how we perform multi-spectral imaging of works of art, and so on.

Places like the Getty and Ivy League universities have money, staff, bandwidth, and expertise to do R&D that other places simply don’t. We have a responsibility to share how we work, because we have the luxury of figuring things out.

What are some of the challenges in the cultural heritage digitization field?

A big challenge in the field is separating signal from noise as we look at new technologies.

We’re also starting to hit an interesting point with digitization technology where megapixel counts are rising exponentially, which tends to exacerbate issues with cameras and lenses. This is an area where high-productivity institutions like the Getty can act as beta testers and provide expert feedback to help the manufacturers to better develop for our industry.

Another challenge is working at scale, when you’re capturing thousands and thousands of images. Even the time it takes to move them around on servers brings up challenges that aren’t addressed in a lot of workflows in cultural heritage imaging. But I find those challenges really exciting.

One of your big interests is imaging workflows. Okay Chris, what’s so sexy about workflows?

A good workflow is one that is documented, explainable, dependable, and repeatable, one where every person involved knows what’s expected of them. A good workflow allows you to find spare cycles to do other interesting projects. It’s not about holding your staff’s feet to the fire to make them do more in a day; it’s about allowing everyone to work in an efficient manner that then allows the institution to do more.

In the Getty Research Institute, streamlining the workflows in the digital services department allowed for the spare capacity to take on curated digital projects without needing to hire additional staff. The staff are happier, the management is happier. These are the things that workflows allow.

You mentioned technical imaging. Will you also be looking at conservation imaging too?

Absolutely. Conservation imaging is an area where the Getty has a lot to contribute to the field. The Getty Conservation Institute’s mission is to serve the wider field and I’m looking forward to becoming a part of that.

You have big plans for 3D. Give us a little preview.

3D is an area we’re going to work in a lot. Historically, 3D has been driven in large part by the gaming community, and the file formats aren’t as consistent as they are in other areas of imaging, so there will be a lot of development, inside and outside the Getty.

A recent large-scale foray into 3D at the Getty is the Research Institute’s scan of the Berlin Philharmonie, which we plan to make freely available and open source. (More to come on this story on Getty Around the World.)

Other areas where 3D could have an impact at the Getty are sculptures, furniture, and architectural models. We have huge collections here that can benefit from this technology, it’s just a matter of finding the most fitting ones!

Chris Edwards at the Berlin Philharmonie

Chris at work photographing the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, a masterpiece of modern architecture by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry. Photo: Emily Pugh

Give us a sense of the huge scope of digitization efforts you’ve been working with at the Getty Research Institute for the last few years.

The Research Institute is the research arm of the Getty—more like a museum than most libraries and more like a library than most museums. There’s a core of eight staff photographers, plus photographers for term projects and six Internet Archive contract staff who work digitizing books. Last year we produced 3,608,000 images!

As just one example of scope, the Research Institute has a collection of 2.2 million art-historical teaching documents that are part of its Photo Study Collection. The Getty is exploring digitizing them for inclusion in the Pharos consortium, which could open the door for neural networks, pattern recognition, and computer vision to help make sense of these massive collections.

What are you proudest of from your time at the Getty so far?

The Getty’s digitized books in the Internet Archive: 39,000 books downloaded nearly 16 million times. I’m really proud to be a part of that because I’m a huge fan of the Internet Archive and their mission, and they’re a fantastic organization to partner with.

A year from now, what do you hope to have accomplished?

I want to have a test lab set up where we can test new technologies like 3D imaging scanners or multispectral imaging equipment so Getty departments can see if they’re relevant for their work. I’ll be working to figure out some of the big-ticket technologies that that more than one of us can use.

Also, I’ve got a 1963 Lambretta Riverside scooter that’s currently in pieces on my garage floor. A year from now, I hope I’m riding it to work.