Using Flickr for Visual Research

Flickr, if you don’t already know, allows people to share photographs. It’s a massive website, and you can easily get lost. I’ve broken it down to help you navigate around.

  • The Commons. The Commons is a place where organizations can post their massive image libraries. Some organizations include The Library of Congress, The Smithsonian, and the New York Public Library. Most of the images are documentary, so it is a good source for primary research into historical time periods. The organizations do a fair job of organizing their images, making specific pictures easy to find. Another great thing about the Commons is that many of the photographs are in the Public Domain (check each one to make sure), allowing you to use the image itself in a show without a license.
  • Places and Map. If you need photographs of a certain place, you can use these to find (usually contemporary) pictures taken there.
  • Groups. Users on Flickr can create their own groups, where they post pictures related to whatever the theme of the group is. Some groups are devoted to specific subjects; for example, you can find a group for vintage kitchen items, medieval combat, or battlefields. It’s not just for photographs; you can find vintage illustration, vintage cigarette ads, or maps and charts.
  • Tags. Flickr users can add keywords, or “tags” to their pictures to make searching for them easier. For instance, you can see all photographs tagged with “furniture“. This gives a lot of results, but you can further revise your search by looking at “clusters“, which are common groupings of related tags. For instance, furniture is clustered with “vintage, antique, old“.
  • Search. When all else fails, there’s good old-fashioned search. You can search through tags or descriptions. This is also where you can search for multiple tags, or search for a photos where one word appears and another doesn’t.

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