Alumni Stories

In Memoriam: 1971-2013

Caleb Smith

Enriching the Classroom Experience through Digital Media

by Mary Conrad

"Caleb Smith was the Director of the Media Center for Art History at Columbia University, where he was also finishing a master’s thesis in American Studies. Caleb was a gentle and generous person, and an inspiring leader. Bringing a unique perspective to everything he did, Caleb shaped the Department’s global media projects, while training students in 360-degree panorama photography."

Excerpt from Caleb's New York Times obituary

For several years, increasingly sophisticated technology has allowed anyone with Internet access to “visit” places around the globe. University art history departments leverage that technology to provide image databases, but Columbia University’s Media Center for Art History has taken the concept several steps further. Under the direction of Caleb Smith (’95 BA, ’96 BFA), the Media Center devoted itself to the collection of photographs, virtual tours, maps, and visual monographs—online, digital, and breathtakingly detailed.

“We’re image librarians and we maintain visual archives,” said Caleb in an interview with the Alumni Association in August 2012. “But we are one of the rare art history departments with a staff devoted to the creation of original websites and original teaching tools, and possibly the only department with a staff dedicated to original documentation of architecture and globally significant sites. The majority of the photographs in our collections are original images taken by our own staff.”

This collection goes far beyond impressive photographs. It also provides important contextual information—virtual field research—for professors and students. “Recently, a student was writing a paper about a cathedral in Florence,” Caleb explained. “Avery [Architectural and Fine Arts] Library is next door to us. We have no lack of resources at Columbia to find the image this woman was looking for. But can we find the image from the particular angle she needed to make the argument? The visual is the evidence [students] need to make their arguments. You can never have enough images. We’ve gone all over the world to photograph architecture and art.”

Mapping Gothic France, one of the Media Center’s most ambitious projects, illustrates this point stunningly. The website provides images, historical maps, charts, and text of every significant Gothic building in France to help the user understand how France was forming as a nation at the same time that Gothic was forming as an architectural style. It allows users to compare several different Gothic cathedrals at once by a number of variables. A simulation feature allows a user to play with the structural dynamics of a stone arch to learn what keeps it standing—and what makes it collapse. Mapping Gothic France allows the user to view ancient France through the dimensions of space, time, and narrative.

Images for the Media Center’s many projects come from very high-resolution images called gigapans. To create gigapans, Caleb said, his staff used a device to scan a zoom lens back and forth over an object or a building, then stitched those images together into a single massive image. With projects like Mapping Gothic France, staff mapped the 360-degree panoramas to a floor plan, which allows viewers to analyze images in a way they couldn’t with photos alone.

“You can zoom in and out, establish relationships, and look at spatial relationships in a way that’s not really possible in a book and isn’t possible or is difficult to do when you visit in person,” said Caleb. However, he acknowledged that technology can’t replace the experience of looking at something in person. “You can truly understand the scale only in person,” he said. “You need that. What [the technology] enables us to do is scan it and let you come to your own conclusion.”

The Media Center’s latest project is an exploration of the Hispanic Society of America, located in New York City. Caleb and his staff did the project for a professor investigating the history of collecting. The museum is stunning both in terms of its architecture and its collection of art. The project allows users to mouse their way into every corner of the stately building and its expansive collection of art from Spain, Portugal, and Latin America. “There’s a lot of stiff competition for museums in New York City,” said Caleb. “If [the Hispanic Society] were in any other city, it would be one of the crown jewels. The wonderful thing about it is that so little has changed over the years and so many things have remained intact”—for example, the imposing 1797 portrait by Goya, “The Duchess of Alba,” that greets virtual and in-person visitors alike.

At the time of this interview, Caleb was finishing his master’s thesis in American studies at Columbia. The thesis focused on 19th-century New York urban planning. Caleb moved to the city in 2000 and became a consummate New Yorker. He walked and photographed every street of Manhattan—about 500 miles. His photographs of Broadway are in the New-York Historical Society’s collection, and he contributed photos to the Museum of the City of New York’s recent show on the New York grid plan, designed in 1811. Caleb also has been an assistant editor and contributor to the Encyclopedia of New York City and has taught a class on New York City architecture in Columbia’s general studies program.

Caleb said the ultimate goal for his work at the Media Center for Art History was to use technology to convey ideas and enrich the classroom experience. With a nod to the advent of photographic slides in education, this high-tech delivery of digital media bridged the gap between words and first-person experience. “The heart of our mission is finding ways to use technology to assist research and pedagogy,” said Caleb. “What tools can we use to better convey the idea and experience of material culture into this darkened classroom with these students?”

Caleb passed away on February 11, 2013.


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