The Power of a Picture: Navigating High Resolution Image Acquisition and Licensing

Dorothea Lange iconic photograph 1936

Photographer Dorothea Lange took this photograph of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in 1936 in Nipomo, California. The day Owens was photographed she sold the tires on her car to buy her children food. The image serves as an enduring depiction of the Great Depression and one family’s struggle to survive. Although taken after 1923, the image is in the public domain because Lange took it while working for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal federal agency. Source: Library of Congress, no restrictions on use.

Graphics provide powerful snapshots of historic events. We can all think of images that transported us back in time. Do you shiver for those determined patriots crossing the icy Delaware River beside George Washington? Or feel distressed by the mother’s haunting stare in Dorothea Lange’s famous Depression-era photograph? Considering the possibility for images to not only convey textual messages, but evoke emotional connections, it is no wonder museums want to incorporate them into their exhibit spaces.

However, as many curators and exhibit designers have painfully discovered, finding a perfect image is only the first step in being able to reproduce that image in an exhibit display. Obtaining the necessary digital files and coordinating the legal copyright clearances and permissions can be a complicated and daunting task. While high resolution image acquisition is an intricate process, it is just that – a process. At HAI, we offer an organized methodology to negotiate licensing, acquire high quality images, and save our clients some worry along the way.

1918 photograph of Arthur Marschke

A 1918 photograph of Arthur Marschke who fought and died with the American Expeditionary Force in Verdun, France. History Associates tracked this photo to Fredric Bohm in Michigan, whose great aunts, Hartha and Alma Bohm, were close friends with Arthur. Photo courtesy of Fredric Bohm.

Clients need to consider several factors when embarking upon an image acquisition project. The basic place to start is to confirm the source of their desired image. This might sound like a simple task, but sourcing an image can be troublesome. In the age where posting (or reposting) a photo is as easy as a quick copy/paste, images often float around online without attributions. At HAI, we employ a wide variety of sources including federal repositories, educational institutions, or private collections. Consider a project that needed photographs of specific World War I servicemen. Using a combination of online databases, remote inquiries, and social media, our team chased a trail of long forgotten photographs buried in archives and dusty family photo albums across the country.

After locating the image source, HAI works with our clients to identify design demands. Understandably, curators often desire mural size images for maximum impact. However, images spanning an entire wall of a museum require incredibly large digital files. When dealing with images, sometimes this is a tricky proposition, particularly if the image is “born digital.” In these cases, History Associates works closely with our contacts at various repositories to investigate the original source of the image, arrange for custom photography, or produce alternate image sources. Beyond sizing, many other factors play an important role in determining whether the image is usable, including original quality and exhibit design.

Clients then face the dreaded difficulties of copyright. HAI has years of experience navigating the intricate complexities of image copyright issues and addressing such questions as: Is this image copyrighted? If so, who owns the copyright? Copyrighting images comes with some general rules. Currently, any image produced before 1923 is considered out of copyright and can be used without licensing. With some limitations, the same rule generally applies for images owned by federal repositories such as the Library of Congress or the National Archives. However, as with all general rules, there are many exceptions.


George Washington Crossing the Delaware vividly depicts the nighttime crossing of young colonials with their leader. As daylight breaks, the hopeful colonial force prepares to attack Hessian forces at Trenton. Source of original painting: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Minnesota Marine Art Museum.

Take the iconic George Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze all the way back in 1851. Two versions of the painting survive, one at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum and the other at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The date of its creation firmly puts it out of copyright, but in order to reproduce the image in high resolution, you’ll need a scan of the painting – which each of these museums own. In many cases, exhibit designers not only need permissions to use the scan, but must go through the complicated process of obtaining consent to crop, colorize, or overlay text on the image (design modifications which are quite typical in today’s innovative museums). HAI routinely handles these licensing negotiations, also considering other factors such as duration, number of uses, credit lines, and cost. At the end of the process, we produce signed permission agreements which clearly lay out terms of use and serve as a road map for museums to relicense images long after they are fabricated.

Ultimately, high resolution image acquisition requires thorough research, negotiation, and knowledge of licensing guidelines. The effort is a process, but if done correctly, the results can continue to engage, educate, and inspire museum visitors.

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Comments 3

  1. There are three issues here

    1. The owners of works of art can restrict access to their property – how often do we see or are told not to take photographs in a gallery? This is perfectly legal. In such a situation the gallery may exert a monopoly over technical access and therefore capability to make a photographic copy. But it would only be a private monopoly.

    2. The subsequent use of a high resolution digital scan of a work of art in the public domain is not illegal, if that copy is copied by another party, because digital copies of any resolution do not carry independent copyright.

    3. The works of art in question are usually publicly financed through direct taxation, funding, donation or indirectly through charitable funfing which is tax deductible. In terms of major works of art coming onto the market for the first time, as with the recently discovered Leonardo da Vinci drawing, only public galleries are allowed to bid in any case. Therefore privatisation of publicly owned heritage engineered through extension of copyrights into perpetuity in the digital age is actually theft.

    I sympathise with owners and custodians of art work, and everybody who has a livelihood issue bound up with that, but the basis of Bridgeman v Corel is sound. Threats of legal action and other bullying tactics, such as an official sounding use of the internet to create plausible grounds and discussions around the case for revising that decision, and cushioning those financial interests, are actually undermining of the public interest.

    For copyright to have value in itself derived from public cinfidence it has to be restricted to reasonable and sensible proportions. Bridgeman v Corel clearly established that confidence and those sensible proportions.

    1. Post

      Dear David, thank you for your clarification on the legal issues behind photo licensing. Phoebe’s objective in this post was to offer our best practices in developing exhibit content that will not run the risk of copyright infringement, thus we suggest an abundance of caution.

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