Don Owen… Part One?

Have you ever been haunted by that seemingly unfindable something? Something like that feeling when you have the definition but can’t remember the word, or you’re trying to remember the name of a song that’s been stuck in your head for the past twenty-four hours. Don Owen is my unfindable song. I know the tune, yet its origin is unpinnable.

These past few weeks I have been digitizing the Canadian architecture slides here at the Visual Resources Centre, and I have been absolutely miffed by the impressive yet imposing presence of Don Owen as a source photographer. One of the integral parts of this process is source identification so I always make an effort to have an understanding of the source context, both the represented media and the wider context of its existence within the VRC collection. On the back of each slide, a source is listed: typically, it’s either copy work, meaning the image was sourced from an existing publication, or an original photograph, often from former faculty or artists connected to the department. With the original source material, I am often met with easily traceable names like Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe, a former AHVA faculty member and frequently found name in our Canadian architecture collection. This is supported by a clear paper trail, given Rhodri’s prominence in his field and a distinct name. All you need is a cursory Google search or a quick conversation with a colleague and the Mystery of Rhodri is answered before it ever begins.

Don Owen, on the other hand, is elusive. His name grants him a certain anonymity–there are a shocking amount of Don Owens in this world. Anything remotely similar to the clear paper trail we have for Rhodri is nowhere to be found. The breadcrumbs leading me to the identity of the source ‘Don Owen’ go in many directions.

Image Credit: 2033 Comox St. G. Dale. Photo by Don Owen.

The first Don Owen (1931-2016) I was confronted by was the Canadian filmmaker. This Don Owen was born in Toronto, and spent most of his life there as well as in Montreal, making it geographically improbable that he was taking location-specific images in Vancouver over a large span of time. The nature of Don Owen’s collection of images implies the photographer has a keen passion for sculpture and public works of art as well as a spatial familiarity with Vancouver as a city, more so than someone new to the city or someone who would perhaps just be passing through. But this Don Owen figures into the Canadian Arts scene in a notable way. The second Don Owen worked for the British Columbia Forest Service in the 1950s. His name appears as a footnoted reference in a 1958 Master of Forestry thesis on forest fire-control standards. He is only mentioned once in the paper, so this is not much of a lead.

The third Don Owen is listed as a donor to the Provincial Museum of Natural History and Anthropology in the 1966 yearly report, having donated one saw-whet owl, which is credited to a Don Owen and Anthony Lowe. Finally, there is also a mysterious and latecomer fourth Don Owen that plausibly could have been at the right place at the right time: a Vancouver police officer, mentioned in a February 1999 article from The Vancouver Sun.

An issue I’ve run into, besides the fact that I am slowly amassing an army of Don Owens, is that tracing the origins and creation date of the images themselves is near impossible as each image is dated only in reference to the creation of its subject. Often the date is that of the implementation or dedication of the work of public art so, as of now, I am not privy to the dates these photographs were taken. The mystery is far from over so stay tuned for part two.

The Breadcrumbs of Don Owens

British Columbia. Legislative Assembly. “Provincial Museum of Natural History and Anthropology Report for the Year 1966.” Legislative BC Sessional Papers (Victoria, BC: Government Printer, 1967).

Kun, Stephen Frank Peter. “An Analysis of Forest Fire-Control Standards.” Thesis (University of British Columbia, 1958).

Mulgrew, Ian. “Forget Jacuzzis, it’s Locks that are Hot: Over at the Home and Garden show, the Biggest Draws are Security Systems and Intruder-Proof Hardware.” The Vancouver Sun (February 20, 1999).

“NFB Mourns Death of ‘Risk-Taking’ Filmmaker Don Owen.” The Canadian Press (February 24, 2016).

A Serendipitous Intersection of Work, Art, and Life

It can be a nice surprise when work and home life intersect.

I’m currently working with two collections of images from Professor Emeritus Marvin Cohodas. The first comprises images from Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand and the second collection’s images are from North, Central, and South America. As my own area of research is early modern England, I find these images quite fascinating since they’re largely new to me. Given the nature of scanning slides and data entry, I don’t spend too much time with each particular image, but they do stick in the mind to some degree. In particular, I do find myself often thinking about the carvings from the Bayon temple at Angkor in Cambodia; intricately executed on walls of stone that are already impressive in their own right. Having been a ceramicist and dealing with highly malleable clay before diving into academia, the ability for stone masons to fit oddly shaped stones together so tightly is nothing short of astounding.

Image credit: Procession to war; combat. Outer Gallery, East 14. Bayon temple, Angkor City, Cambodia. Photo by Dr. Marvin Cohodas, 2003.

Find out more on our PIX database:

At home, my partner and I watch a fair bit of TV and movies like many people. Our preferred genre is horror or at least films and shows that look to the darker side of the human experience. Two of our favourite TV series are Utopia (the UK Channel 4 series, not the abysmal US remake) and Fargo, which is a great series set in the universe of the Coen brothers’ movie of the same name. It was in the second season of Fargo that I first saw actor Zahn Tokiya-ku McClarnon and he was phenomenal as crime family enforcer Hanzee Dent. He later starred as Big in the wonderful show Reservation Dogs. When I heard that he was starring in a new show called Dark Winds I knew I had to check it out. Dark Winds is a crime thriller set in 1970s Arizona, specifically the Navajo Nation with McClarnon playing Navajo police officer Joe Leaphorn who is trying to solve a double murder with the help of new addition to the Navajo police, Jim Chee.

Dark Winds is a great crime drama, but what makes it particularly compelling is the centrality of Navajo mythology and belief systems throughout. Not as window-dressing as in so many other shows and movies, in Dark Winds Indigenous culture is the backbone which the story relies upon. I don’t want to give anything away in case you decide to check out the show, but it does go well beyond a typical police drama.

Oddly enough the connection of work and home didn’t cross my mind while watching Dark Winds until the other night. In one episode a scene occurs in the Kayenta police station. Kayenta? Where do I know that name from? Professor Cohodas’s images! Now of course we know that the images we work with are or were real objects, but personally I do feel a bit of a cognitive disconnect from them. A photo in a book or on the computer screen can feel abstracted or ever so slightly adjacent to reality. Seeing such locations, not as a static image on a screen or in a book, but being lived on and in use, make them more real, more present, more alive.

Image credit: Navajo National Monument. Kiet Siel Canyon, Arizona. Photo by Dr. Marvin Cohodas, 1974.

Find out more on our PIX database:

Image credit: Lomaki pueblo site. Wupatki, Arizona. Photo by Dr. Marvin Cohodas, 1974.

Find out more on our PIX database:

Between the writing and posting of this article, I happened across another instance of my entertainment consumption reminding me of Dr. Cohodas’ work; this time returning to his images from Cambodia. I will admit that I am not the hugest fan of Ridley Scott’s recent additions to the Alien franchise. I found his two latest Alien movies, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant to be somewhat convoluted and full of plot holes, but they are visually stunning. Many of the locations and sets alone are reason enough to watch the movies. In particular I find the room in Prometheus where the scientists find the ampules of bio-weapons to be quite powerful. Even without the giant head looming over the canisters, the room would be impressive to enter, but the sculpture makes the space monumental. The massive head sculpture triggered another sense of déjà vu. I couldn’t quite place where I was remembering large sculptures of heads from until after the movie.

Image credit: Angkor City – Bayon, Cambodia. Photo by Dr. Marvin Cohodas, 2003.

Find out more on our PIX database:

In his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life imitates Art more than Art imitates life.”[1] The other movement that art can undertake is that of imitating art. Throughout time, artists have, intentionally or not, with malicious intent or reverence and respect, pulled from previous artists of various cultures and time periods to inform their current practice. These references can go unnoticed if a viewer is unfamiliar with the original, but when one knows of the original works, the new work can become much richer in meaning for it. Additionally, in an age where people will scour a movie for “Easter Eggs;” hidden references and reverential nods to previous works, noticing such artistic citations can be quite exciting just as when I had my eureka-like Kayenta and Angkor moments.

[1] Wilde, Oscar. “THE DECAY OF LYING: A DIALOGUE.” The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review, Mar.1877-Dec.1900 25, no. 143 (01, 1889): 35-56.

Introducing PixPlot

`PixPlot is a web-based tool that utilizes machine learning technology to facilitate the visualization of large numbers of images. Developed by Yale, PixPlot allows us at the VRC to offer one new, novel way, to enter the ever expanding collection of digitized works we have on hand. We have implemented two instantiations of PixPlot for demonstration purposes: the first is a 2D constellation of the post-1945 collection of close to 23,000 images, and the second is a 3d constellation of the same collection. We will soon expand this technology to other areas of our collection.

PixPlot allows the user to experience the discovery of images similar to finding adjacent books on the library shelf: in other words, PixPlot finds, using a convolutional neural network, formal and aesthetic similarities between the inputted images. One might expect to find, for example, colour field paintings clustered together. It is an extreme form of an aesthetic formalism that permits the potential discovery of those artists working in a similar style, yet possibly overlooked.

You will note that there are a series of what PixPlot terms “hotspots” on the left-most side of the browser, once you’ve entered into the visualization space. The program uses Hierarchical density-based spatial clustering of applications with noise (HDBSCAN) to auto-generate these hotspots, or clusters, of formal similarities. These are not exclusive to the visualization, and there may be (many) more that go undetected and not listed among the hotspots. Note that the labels are somewhat arbitrary and subject to revision. It is best to freely explore, and see what you find.

To derive the constellation, PixPlot uses UMAP (Uniform Manifold Approximation and Projection for Dimension Reduction), which allows for an assortment of parameters that affect the density and the dimensions of the visualization.

For a live demonstration, see here:

AHVA VRC 2-d Post-1945 Pixplot Visualization

AHVA VRC 3-d Post-1945 Pixplot Visualization

For assistance with PixPlot, or if you have any questions or suggestions, please do email us at


Digging Through the Collections of the Visual Resource Centre

I’m Richard, a second-year Art History PhD student here at UBC. I also work in the department’s Visual Resources Centre, located on the second-floor of Lasserre, room 206. Chances are there are three possibilities of your knowledge of the VRC. The first is that the TA for a course holds their office hours in the VRC. The second is that you know we have a water cooler—vital knowledge for making it through those 3-hour seminars. The third is that it’s that room you pass by, peeking in to see a few people quietly busy at work on their computers, but somehow it just doesn’t feel right to drop in, say hi, and see what’s going on. There is a fourth option: you’ve stumbled upon this blog and have either never heard of the VRC or you have, but just haven’t visited us yet. Well, the VRC is yours to use, so please feel free to drop in anytime.

What does the VRC offer? We have quite a substantial collection of 35mm slides, predominantly covering canonical works and artists, but with a bit of digging you’ll find a wide array of other images from architecture, pre-history, religious studies, medicine… The list goes on and on. There is also an extensive collection of films available to view here for undergrads and for grad students and faculty they can be signed out as long as they’re not needed for a specific class. We also have a small, but growing library of artist books, exhibition catalogues, publications like ArtForum and The Art Bulletin, and numerous general interest books that are to use here or borrow.

In the world of Google Image search, physically looking through slides seems archaic. Why look at a drawer of slides holding maybe two-hundred slides when Google or Artstor will instantly return hundreds to thousands of results? Directed searches are great if you know what you want. From time to time you can find some interesting related results, but at least for myself, I find it still tends to be quite focused. That’s where physical browsing excels. Do you ever go to the library to find a specific book and end up grabbing several others that are on the shelf right around the one you were there to pick up? I know I do this all the time. Search algorithms are only so good and I find it extremely beneficial to see what books are actually adjacent to the one I knew I needed. The same line of thinking pertains to images.

Illustration in Giambattista della Porta’s Physiognomoniae Coelestis (Naples, 1603). Bibliothèque nationale de Brera, Milan.

As an example, let’s take a look at my own research. I am examining the human/animal debate of the 17th-18th centuries, specifically how it may have had an impact on the illustrations included in English printings of the fables of Aesop. I had a look through PIX, the department’s digital collection: Unfortunately I couldn’t find much that had been digitized as of yet. (It is an ongoing process to digitize our entire collection of slides.) Looking at the physical slides though, the Medicine drawer contains sections for Anatomy, Physiognomy, and Midwifery. Out of this, there were some interesting anatomical prints, but it was the physiognomic prints that really caught my eye. The assignment of human traits to animals, such as a dog’s loyalty or a fox’s cunning which then get mapped back onto humans through the physical similarity of a person’s face to that of a fox for example is wildly fascinating when dealing with the hybrid animals of Aesop. But where do the slides really come into play? Right next to the animal physiognomic illustrations are another aspect of physiognomy: the human criminal.

Images from Alphonse Bertillon’s Identification Anthropométrique; Instructions Signalétiques (Melun, 1893) New York Academy of Medicine, New York.

In the late 19th to early 20th Century, it was thought that certain physical characteristics such as the shape of one’s ear or the severity of their brow were indicative of a person’s propensity for crime. In the 21st Century, while this may seem at a glance almost preposterous, assuredly racist, and open for rampant misuse by those in power, we unfortunately live in a world where such practices are essentially still in use, but have been distilled down primarily to skin color alone. Already I’m thinking if physiognomy, particularly with regard to physical animal traits seen in a human might work somehow with my dissertation. Physical traits to speak to the moral character of a person does have similarities to the fables of Aesop and their moralistic teachings. As I ponder the possibility, I glance over the surrounding drawers and the Cosmology drawer catches my eye.

Robert Fludd. The Universe as a Mirror Image of God, early 17th C. From S.K. Heninger Jr.’s The Cosmographical Glass: Renaissance Diagrams of the Universe, 2005.

I remember a thoroughly engaging presentation a student gave about Robert Fludd (1574-1637). Fludd was a physician who, amongst many topics, was highly engaged with occult philosophy. Through some astounding images, Fludd attempted to visually represent the various relationships found throughout the universe. In looking at these images together, the drive for humans to use analogy and likeness to speak to complex facets of life stuck with me. While Fludd’s The Universe as a Mirror Image of God from the early 17th C is wildly different from the fables of Aesop, there is a similarity between the two in attempting to show equivalencies between two subjects, human/animal and the universe/God, through a relatively simple image.

Will some of these images make their way into my dissertation? Possibly. Importantly, possible connections have been opened up that I likely would not have seen through simple Google searches or even through the direct research I have done regarding Aesopian publications. As we all become more nuanced researchers, we learn how to widen our nets to find new sources, connections, and inspirations. This is where I feel the VRC can be quite a benefit. It’s very easy to become too focused on a topic and therefore miss adjacent, but possibly highly fruitful avenues of research. Physical searching naturally helps to remove the blinders as you glance over the slide titles in a particular drawer, but also the surrounding drawers. That being said, a huge portion of our slide collection is scanned and available on PIX, as are the images above, so feel free to browse the collection to find them and related images.

Constable, Cloud Study (or studying in the cloud)

Constable Cloud Study 1822 at Tate Museum

[Title: Cloud Study]

Creator: John Constable (English landscapist, 1776-1837)

Date: 1822

Location: Tate, London

Online: Check out this work and many more in the VRC Database

Description: One of the four large scale examples of Constable’s own study of how to express the structure and movement of clouds in the sky. Inscribed by the artist in pencil on the original backing paper, now separately preserved: ’27 aug 11, o clock Noon looking Eastward large silvery [? Clouds] wind Gentle at S. West.’]


Blog Post Author: Alexi Paglinawan

As most of us in the AHVA community have transitioned back to in-person learning from January’s brief return to remote learning, it is perhaps appropriate that our first blog post encourages a brief moment of calm by exploring John Constable’s Cloud Study from 1822 as a means to reflect upon these turbulent times (should looking at grey clouds do the trick). A purely sensory and seemingly ordinary piece, Constable’s Cloud Study is considered to be an important look into the artist’s practice.

This Cloud Study is number 22 out of the 50 Constable created by observing the skies of Hampstead, England from 1821 to 1822. This collection of intensive cloud study remains unique with regards to his oeuvre, for such cloud studies are not to be found replicated or incorporated in any other large-scale paintings by the artist, though similar sky compositions may be observed in Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821), The Lock (1824) and The Cornfield (1826). Each study is painted on paper and labelled on the back with the date, the direction of the wind, and other memoranda. This particular painting has on its reverse: “ ’27 aug 11, o clock Noon looking Eastward large [? Clouds] winds Gentle at S. West.” Many of Constable’s most notable works are set at noon. This piece, measuring at about 18 x 12 inches, presents a focused snapshot of the sky in this particular moment in time. The clouds appear as though they are about to release the accumulated rain down to the land below, but the frozen moment of the “calm before the storm” also allows for the image of endless days with grey skies above. Characteristic of Constable’s painterly techniques, the clouds represented here are textured and animated—giving life to the naturally fluffy appearance of cumulus clouds.

For our purposes, and since one can easily look out the window and look up towards the typical grey Vancouver skies any time during the day, Constable’s Cloud Study may be interpreted in a slightly different way today than in pre-COVID times. As we have entered the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us by this point are more than well-acquainted with doing almost everything virtually. Cloud Study in this regard invites the observation that we are living our lives “in the cloud.” Despite that we were already immersed in technology even before the pandemic, the reliance on the internet and data, especially, has never been more prevalent. We study, learn, read and interact and even have made and continue to make new connections online—and that is on top of the hours of screen time spent during downtime. To be learning on Zoom and using great brain power on processing and speaking academically, and keeping one’s eyes open in front of a screen for a maximum of three hours, and switching on and off one’s camera because the WiFi is playing games or one is rapidly losing concentration, has never been more taxing that one cannot help but think that lugging one’s self to be physically present in class was taken for granted. In fact, many things were taken for granted before the COVID era.

Undeniably, it has been a learning curve for everyone. Let us all think about how far we have come, however, as this has not been an easy feat. We are all in this together, and hopefully there is some comfort in the thought.




SuperRare NFT Gallery Crawler

Hi All!

Welcome to our brand new VRC Blog! We hope that this new channel will help us broadcast interesting content to the AHVA and UBC community and, who knows, perhaps even beyond! To start things off nicely I thought I would talk to you about Non-Fungible Tokens, better know perhaps by their acronym NFTs. I’ve been hard at work on a modest python web scraping script that goes through the “Market” page on the SuperRare Gallery website. The market page looks like this:

Since I’m not a real programmer (!!), this is by no means a very good script and I only pasted a small amount from the complete script. I tried all kinds of things, e.g., doing a loop using x and y coordinates of images of a screenshot, or grabbing the SRC element from image tags in the HTML, but every approach gave me headaches except this one. This script takes advantage of two python libraries, selenium and pyautogui which, if you are interested, you will need to install in order to use (e.g., brew install selenium or pip install pyautogui at the command line). Both libraries are used for software testing. The main thing going on here is that the script controls the browser as if somebody was actually using it. By that I mean, when you run it you will actually see your browser open, the mouse move on its own, clicking images, right-clicking and saving images, closing tabs, etc. The script does that by running lines like this:

pyautogui.moveTo(1500, 320, duration=2)
pyautogui.move(10, 10, duration=1)

Continue reading SuperRare NFT Gallery Crawler

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