Retrieving Historical Photos of Film Stars using DBpedia

m4farrel's picture

This is a follow-up to the previous blog post on retrieving historical art from the Rijksmuseum. Like historical art, film star photos inform us about politics and human culture at particular times throughout history - but there are so many film star photos that it becomes difficult to devote sufficient attention to each individual photo. We can use DBpedia to retrieve historical photos of film stars and display them in our statistically generated scenes of historical events. We'll display both film star photos and historical art that best fit the contexts of our statistically generated scenes - and use the context of the scenes that they are placed in to interpret them for their historical significance.

As an example, let’s look at film stars who were active around the time that Anne Frank was alive. We'll look at film stars who became active 1900-1945, even though Anne Frank was born in 1929. Anne Frank pasted photos of film stars on her wall who were active before she was born, such as Greta Garbo who became active in 1920. Here’s a SPARQL query to retrieve film stars who were active during that time period:

PREFIX wordnet: <>

SELECT DISTINCT ?actor ?thumb ?start {
    ?actor dbpprop:wordnet_type wordnet:synset-actor-noun-1 .
  } UNION {
    ?actor dbpedia-owl:occupation dbpedia:Actor .
  ?actor dbpedia-owl:thumbnail ?thumb .
  ?actor dbpedia-owl:activeYearsStartYear ?start .
  FILTER (?start > "1900-01-01"^^xsd:date)
  FILTER (?start < "1945-01-01"^^xsd:date)
      ?film dbpedia-owl:starring ?actor .
    } UNION {
      ?film dbpprop:starring ?actor .

We can execute that SPARQL query and retrieve the results by sending a GET request to DBpedia’s SPARQL endpoint:

Note: we’d set the query parameter to be our SPARQL query.

Here's a sample of the results that are returned after executing the SPARQL query:

actor thumb start "1942+02:00"^^<> "1912+02:00"^^<> "1908+02:00"^^<>
... ... ...

There are too many results to list in the table above. So, how many film stars were active during that time period?

> (film-stars/count 1900 1945)


Let’s have a look at a sample of a film star photo that we would place in our statistically generated scenes of historical events:

> (film-stars/sample 1900 1945)


There are a couple of problems with retrieving film star photos using DBpedia.

One problem is that some photos of film stars are modern, and would look out of place in our exhibits. We could check if the photos are greyscale before displaying them, but this might not always be effective. For example, this photo of Philip Ober was taken in 1950, even though we only want film stars who were active between 1900 - 1945; we wouldn't want photos that were taken after the date when a particular historical scene that we are recreating takes place. There is no property that tells us when the photo of film star was taken.

Another problem is that there isn’t information available about when some film stars were active, e.g. Sonja Henie as mentioned in this article from the Anne Frank House; this means that they are not included in the result of our SPARQL query. It might be possible to use the release dates of the films that actors/actresses starred in as a proxy for information on when they were active.

We've made a Unity3d picture frame asset that retrieves a random film star photo from DBpedia and displays it when the scene that it is placed in is played. The asset is available in this repository. Stay tuned for more on statistically generating historical scenes!