Saturday, August 18, 2012

Photo Albums of the World

A Whirlwind Tour

In “The Nation’s Photo Album” I discussed the royalty-free, mostly attribution-only collection of images and sounds maintained by the U.S. Library of Congress’s Digital Collections. As impressive as that resource is, it represents only a small part of the digital richness accessible through your web browser. So here I offer a brief overview, by category, of other places you can find usable art.

Note that not all these sources are quite as “public domain” as the Library of Congress. Some require permission and may extract a usage fee for anything other than noncommercial use. According to the helpful FAQs maintained by the Metropolitan Museum and the Smithsonian Institutions, posting to a blog, a social network, or a website is considered noncommercial so long as you do not accept advertising, charge a fee, or use the site as a store. Placing an image on the cover of a book you plan to sell may be considered commercial use, depending on the number of copies printed and whether you aim for a mass or an academic audience. Also at some institutions, not every image can be used. Where I know of restrictions, I list them, but you do have to check in each case.

That said, here are some more suggestions in a far from exhaustive list.

First off, I’d like to mention the photography version of Wikipedia: Fotopedia. Fotopedia photographs are uploaded by users under some version of the Creative Commons license.

Fotopedia has a number of free apps available for iDevices, available through the App Store on your device. These free collections offer a great way to search and surf for images, but you still need to use a browser to check the copyright information on photographs you want to use or repurpose. If you go to the main site at the link above and keep clicking the right arrow until you get to the search box, you can enter a search term for a part of the world, a geographic feature, or a category of people and see tens to thousands of gorgeous photographs. Click at bottom right of an image page, where it says “Some Rights Reserved,” to find out the exact terms of use for that shot. Some photographers permit commercial use with attribution; others don’t. Even those that don’t may choose to waive the restriction if you write to the address given on the image copyright page.

But to quote the Fotopedia Basics page: “The encyclopedia is not meant to stay on Fotopedia's website. You can embed widgets on your blog and website, share links with friends on Facebook and Twitter, and get them to vote on photos. Spread the photos and spread the word to the world! Just remember photographers take great photos and deserve to be recognized for their work.”

Two other good sites of free, public domain photographs and clip art are Microsoft’s Clip Art Gallery and MorgueFile. These have no restrictions that I know of, but do check around for a “terms of use” that may require attribution or impose limitations.

And, of course, the WANA Commons group on Flickr is growing every day: it must be close to 4,000 images by now. For more information, see the link in my previous post.

Then we come to museums, most of which will allow you to download their art free for noncommercial use, so long as you attribute the source. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York both give clear directions on what you can and cannot do (look for a terms of use or a FAQ—the Smithsonian’s is at, and their digital collections and online exhibitions offer rich and varied artwork from all over the world. The Smithsonian also manages the Freer and Sackler galleries of Asian art (the source of my first image). The Smithsonian marks images that have no known copyright restrictions, but for commercial use I recommend you e-mail the address given in the terms of use. Or buy one of the museum’s DVD collections for about $20. The Met Store also posts works of art to its Pinterest board, which you can follow.  The Art Museum of Chicago has a Pinterest board, too.

 Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Freer Gallery of Asian Art, F1952.2
Folio from the Gulshan (Rose Garden) Album;
Mongol chieftain with attendants resting in the countryside,

ca. 1600, Mughal dynasty, Jahangir (r.1605-27)

It’s also worth searching for major art museums elsewhere in the United States and Canada. Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia have wonderful art museums, as do many other cities.

And don’t stop with U.S. museums. The Louvre in Paris, the  State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Kremlin Museums in Moscow, the British Museum in London, and others are increasingly moving online. Terms vary, but again the usual standard seems to be that you can download any image and use it for noncommercial purposes so long as you attribute the source as determined by the museum, although objects owned by third parties may carry restrictions.

For example, the British Museum permits noncommercial and educational, academic, scholarly, or private use, including posting to a website; images may be cropped but not otherwise altered and must be attributed © Trustees of the British Museum, with additional information listed by the museum for a particular image. For commercial use, the museum maintains a British Museum Images service, but its prices are high (£100—about $150—for the one photograph I checked). The museum also maintains a free image service, which e-mails registered users certain files considered to be copyright-free. You find images by searching the General Catalogue and checking the Images only box. For more information or to request a fee waiver, e-mail

Another source is public libraries, including the online services that may be available through your own local library (call your librarian for details. As with museums, most libraries tend to have a more restrictive copyright policy than the Library of Congress, but they are still public-service institutions, so they are usually willing to grant permission, if necessary, perhaps in return for a fee.

In addition to the Library of Congress, one great source is the New York Public Library, which holds about 800,000 images in its Digital Gallery. You are welcome to download any of them, although the library notes that some images may still be subject to privacy and copyright restrictions, in which case you need to read the library’s “Terms and Conditions” before posting them on a website, social network, or blog.

Again, other countries maintain their own versions of the Library of Congress. To give just example, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France has a large collection of images, including almost every print produced in France from the 17th century onward. I had a harder time figuring out what the BNF considered fair use, though. European Union copyright law tends to be stricter than U.S., so I would definitely verify the rules before posting an image. Fees for use in print (€25–50) are about half that of the British Museum.

University libraries often have digital collections, although they may limit access to members of the university community. But again, it’s worth searching for big libraries in other U.S. and Canadian cities: you may be surprised how much you can access with minimal effort.

As Linda Adams mentioned in a comment to my previous post, many U.S. government agencies (and, quite likely, the government agencies of other countries) take their mission as public servants seriously and allow people to use their images free of charge. An obvious agency to check is NASA. You can download pictures directly from the site, including the image of the day and various shots from the Hubble Telescope and the current Mars rover; watch a slideshow of recent images; see thumbnails; and connect from there to the archives. If you need to check copyright information, try

My second image, “X-Rays from a Young Supernova Remnant,” is courtesy of NASA.

I had planned to end this post by noting that, despite having—and using—all these sources for art, my own blog contains no photographs other than the covers that Goodreads throws up from among the books I’ve reviewed. But while researching the Blogger help files to find out how to add an RSS feed, I discovered that “Cannot upload due to an internal error” is Blogger speak for “You haven’t enabled Picasa Web Albums, dummy, so where am I supposed to put this picture?” Tech talk triumphs once again!

Note that the Blogger help files, even the one that listed reasons why a person might have trouble uploading images, did not explain what the “internal error” meant. I had to deduce it, based on the explanation of how to upload pictures, which mentioned in passing that Blogger stores the files in the user’s Picasa Web Album. Since I did not have one, and knew that Google manages Picasa, I managed to sign into my Google Apps dashboard and find the appropriate “service”—i.e., Picasa. Then trial and error confirmed that I had discovered the missing link.

Do I sense another post?

1 comment:

  1. Hi there. This post is full of useful information and I enjoyed reading it. Thanks so much for sharing so many sources for pics that I never would have even dreamed existed.


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