About Infomotions Image Gallery: Flickr as cloud computing

Infomotions Image GalleryThis posting describes the whys and wherefores behind the Infomotions Image Gallery.


I was introduced to photography during library school, specifically, when I took a multi-media class. We were given film and movie cameras, told to use the equipment, and through the process learn about the medium. I took many pictures of very tall smoke stacks and classical-looking buildings. I also made a stop-action movie where I step-by-step folded an origami octopus and underwater sea diver while a computer played the Beatles’ “Octopuses Garden” in the background. I’d love to resurrect that 16mm film.

I was introduced to digital photography around 1995 when Steve Cisler (Apple Computer) gave me a QuickTake camera as a part of a payment for writing a book about Macintosh-based HTTP servers. That camera was pretty much fun. If I remember correctly, it took 8-bit images and could store about twenty-four of them at a time. The equipment worked perfectly until my wife accidentally dropped it into a pond. I still have the camera, somewhere, but it only works if it is plugged into an electrical socket. Since then I’ve owned a few other digital cameras and one or two digital movie cameras. They have all been more than simple point-and-shoot devices, but at the same time, they have always had more features than I’ve ever really exploited.

Over the years I mostly used the cameras to document the places I’ve visited. I continue to photograph buildings. I like to take macro shots of flowers. Venuses are always appealing. Pictures of food are interesting. In the self-portraits one is expected to notice the background, not necessarily the subject of the image. I believe I’m pretty good at composition. When it comes to color I’m only inspired when the sun is shining bright, and that makes some of my shots overexposed. I’ve never been very good at photographing people. I guess that is why I prefer to take pictures of statues. All things library and books are a good time. I wish I could take better advantage of focal lengths in order blur the background but maintain a sharp focus in the foreground. The tool requires practice. I don’t like to doctor the photographs with effects. I don’t believe the result represents reality. Finally, I often ask myself an aesthetic question, “If I was looking through the camera to take the picture, then did I really see what was on the other side?” After all, my perception was filtered through an external piece of equipment. I guess I could ask the same question of all my perceptions since I always wear glasses.

The Infomotions Image Gallery is simply a collection of my photography, sans personal family photos. It is just another example of how I am trying to apply the principles of librarianship to the content I create. Photographs are taken. Individual items are selected, and the collection is curated. Given the available resources, metadata is applied to each item, and the whole is organized into sets. Every year the newly created images are archived to multiple mediums for preservation purposes. (I really ought to make an effort to print more of the images.) Finally, an interface is implemented allowing people to access the collection.


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Fickr as cloud computing

This section describes how the Gallery is currently implemented.

About ten years ago I began to truly manage my photo collection using Apple’s iPhoto. At just about the same time I purchased an iPhoto add-on called BetterHTMLExport. Using a macro language, this add-on enabled me to export sets of images to index and detail pages complete with titles, dates, and basic numeric metadata such as exposure, f-stop, etc. The process worked but the software grew long in the tooth, was sold to another company, and was always a bit cumbersome. Moreover, maintaining the metadata was tedious inhibiting my desire to keep it up to date. Too much editing here, exporting there, and uploading to the third place. To make matters worse, people expect to comment on the photos, put them into their own sets, and watch some sort of slide show. Enter Flickr and a jQuery plug-in called ColorBox.

After learning how to use iPhoto’s ability to publish content to Flickr, and after taking a closer look at Flickr’s application programmer interace (API), I decided to use Flickr to host my images. The idea was to: 1) maintain the content on my local file system, 2) upload the images and metadata to Flickr, and 3) programmatically create in interface to the content on my website. The result was a more streamlined process and a set of Perl scripts implementing a cleaner user interface. I was entering the realm of cloud computing. The workflow is described below:

  1. Take photographs – This process is outlined in the previous section.
  2. Import photographs – Import everything, but weed right away. I’m pretty brutal in this regard. I don’t keep duplicate nor very similar shots. No (or very very few) out-of-focus or poorly composed shots are kept either.
  3. Add titles – Each photo gets some sort of title. Sometimes they are descriptive. Sometimes they are rather generic. After all, how many titles can different pictures of roses have? If I were really thorough I would give narrative descriptions to each photo.
  4. Make sets – Group the imported photos into a set and then give a title to the set. Again, I ought to add narrative descriptions, but I don’t. Too lazy.
  5. Add tags – Using iPhoto’s keywords functionality, I make an effort to “tag” each photograph. Tags are rather generic: flower, venus, church, me, food, etc.
  6. Publish to Flickr – I then use iPhoto’s sharing feature to upload each newly created set to Flickr. This works very well and saves me the time and hassle of converting images. This same functionality works in reverse. If I use Flickr’s online editing functions, changes are reflected on my local file system after a refresh process is done. Very nice.
  7. Re-publish to Infomotions – Using a system of Perl scripts I wrote called flickr2gallery I then create sets of browsable pages from the content saved on Flickr.

Using this process I can focus more on my content and less on my presentation. It makes it easier for me to focus on the images and their metadata and less on how the content will be displayed. Graphic design is not necessarily my forte.

Flickr2gallery is a suite of Perl scripts and plain text files:

  1. tags2gallery.pl – Used to create pages of images based on photos’ tags.
  2. sets2gallery.pl – Used to create pages of image sets as well as the image “database”.
  3. make-home.pl – Used to create the Image Gallery home page.
  4. flickr2gallery.sh – A shell script calling each of the three scripts above and thus (re-)building the entire Image Gallery subsite. Currently, the process takes about sixty seconds.
  5. images.db – A tab-delimited list of each photograph’s local home page, title, and Flickr thumbnail.
  6. Images.pm – A really-rudimentary Perl module containing a single subroutine used to return a list of HTML img elements filled with links to random images.
  7. random-images.pl – Designed to be used as a server-side include, calls Images.pm to display sets of random images from images.db.

I know the Flickr API has been around for quite a while, and I know I’m a Johnny Come Lately when it comes to learning how to use it, but that does not mean it can’t be outlined here. The API provides a whole lot of functionality. Reading and writing of image content and metadata. Reading and writing information about users, groups, and places. Using the REST-like interface the programmer constructs a command in the form of a URL. The URL is sent to Flickr via HTTP. Responses are returned in easy-to-read XML.

A good example is the way I create my pages of images with a given tag. First I denote a constant which is the root of a Flickr tag search. Next, I define the location of the Infomotions pages on Flickr. Then, after getting a list of all of my tags, I search Flickr for images using each tag as a query. These results are then looped through, parsed, and built into a set of image links. Finally, the links are incorporated into a template and saved to a local file. Below lists the heart of the process:

  use constant S => 'http://api.flickr.com/services/rest/?
  use constant F => 'http://www.flickr.com/photos/infomotions/';
  # get list of all tags here
  # find photos with this tag
  $request  = HTTP::Request->new( GET => S . $tag );
  $response = $ua->request( $request );
  # process each photo
  $parser    = XML::XPath->new( xml => $response->content );
  $nodes     = $parser->find( '//photo' );
  my $cgi    = CGI->new;
  my $images = '';
  foreach my $node ( $nodes->get_nodelist ) {
  # parse
  my $id     = $node->getAttribute( 'id' );
  my $title  = $node->getAttribute( 'title' );
  my $farm   = $node->getAttribute( 'farm' );
  my $server = $node->getAttribute( 'server' );
  my $secret = $node->getAttribute( 'secret' );
  # build image links
  my $thumb = "http://farm$farm.static.flickr.com/$server/$id" . 
              '_' . $secret . '_s.jpg';
  my $full  = "http://farm$farm.static.flickr.com/$server/$id" . 
              '_' . $secret . '.jpg';
  my $flickr = F . "$id/";
  # build list of images
  $images .= $cgi->a({ href => $full, 
                       rel => 'slideshow',
                       title => "<a href='$flickr'>Details on Flickr</a>"
                      $cgi->img({ alt => $title, src => $thumb, 
                      border => 0, hspace => 1, vspace => 1 }));
  # save image links to file here

Notice the rel attribute (slideshow) in each of the images’ anchor elements. These attributes are used as selectors in a jQuery plug-in called ColorBox. In the head of each generated HTML file is a call to ColorBox:

  <script type="text/javascript">
      $("a[rel='slideshow']").colorbox({ slideshowAuto: false, 
                                         current: "{current} of {total}",
                                         slideshowStart: 'Slideshow',
                                         slideshowStop: 'Stop',
                                         slideshow: true,
                                         transition:"elastic" });

Using this plug-in I am able to implement a simple slideshow when the user clicks on any image. Each slideshow display consists of simple navigation and title. In my case the title is really a link back to Flickr where the user will be able to view more detail about the image, comment, etc.

barn ceilingkilnHesburgh Libraryself-portraitGiant EraserbirdsChristian Scientist ChurchRedwood Library

Summary and conclusion

I am an amateur photographer, and the fruits of this hobby are online here for sharing. If you use them, then please give credit where credit is due.

The use of Flickr as a “cloud” to host my images is very useful. It enables me to mirror my content in more than one location as well as provide access in multiple ways. When the Library of Congress announced they were going to put some of their image content on Flickr I was a bit taken aback, but after learning how the Flickr API can be exploited I think there are many opportunities for libraries and other organizations to do the same thing. Using the generic Flickr interface is one way to provide access, but enhanced and customized access can be implemented through the API. Lots of food for thought. Now to apply the same process to my movies by exploiting YouTube.

Published by

Eric Lease Morgan

Artist- and Librarian-At-Large