Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Reading Photographs

Photographs are my favorite sources of history. A photograph can tell you much about the world that existed at the time the picture was taken -- and, by extension, much about the world you live in today. (You'll notice that each entry on this blog has at least one photograph or an image of some sort.) Often, the most interesting parts of a photograph are things beyond the original "subject" of the picture. In some ways, the best photographs are ones that allow you to discover something new whenever you look at them. The photo below is a good example of that:
This is a scene at the foot of Columbus Avenue, probably in 1903 or 1904. The area in this picture was a major transit point for people and goods travelling through Sandusky at that time. Can you count how many different forms of transportation are visible within this image? What can this scene suggest to you about why Sandusky was founded and how it developed the way it did? (For answers relating to this question, see the article, "Sandusky, Pioneer link Between Sail and Rail," in the Ohio History journal.) What can the people in this scene tell you about life in Sandusky over one hundred years ago? Do you think you can create a reasonable story about the life of a person in the picture? Why do you think this picture was taken? How do you explain why a scene like this does not happen there today?

Here is another scene, on the waterfront (near the foot of Meigs Street) in the late 1870s. What inferences can you draw from this image? Why do you think this picture was taken? Does it say anything to you about the ideas of "progress" and "technology" and how people perceived those ideas at the time of the photograph?
Finally, compare and contrast the two photos below. You might not know who either of these men were (in fact, the man on the right is unidentified in our collections), but you can probably make some rather accurate assumptions just by looking at their photos. Note their appearance -- both in their clothing and pose. Even the type of photograph might give hints as to the background of the subject. (The image on the right is a carte-de-visite, an early pocket-sized photo.) Do you think you could create a realistic story for each man?


















In many ways, photographs are as valuable as the written word for studying history. We tend to have a different kind of "intellectual filter" (perception) with a photograph than with a written text, and what is not found in the text may sometimes be revealed through your observation of the image. (But beware -- as with made-up stories, photographs can often be distorted to give an inaccurate presentation of the event pictured. It does not have to be "doctoring" of an image; the distortion could be as simple as selectively framing a scene to influence one's perception of events.)

For brief lessons on reading photographs, see here, here, and here. And, of course, the library has many interesting books on the history of photography and its role in culture and society. A good place to start is with Beaumont Newhall's book, The History of Photography (770.9 NE).

As always, if you have your own thoughts about this topic, or about any other postings on this blog, feel free to leave a message in the comments section.

1 comment:

Myrt said...

The single hardest thing for genealogy researchers to do, is to put aside our current cultural orientations, in order to place an ancestor in historical perspective.

Thank-you for creating this informative and colorful blog. Using this medium as a method for archiving photos and informing the public about the history of your area in Ohio is an excellent exercise of your charge as archivists & librarians. BRAVO!

Thanks should go to your individual writers. How about giving them credit, perhaps in the form of a byline? Each is adept in a particular area of expertise, and your blog readers will soon understand where to address specific inquires.

The combination of a photo of an artifact and the text in your blog really "tells the story" and helps us 21st century genealogists understand life 200+ years ago in Sandusky and Erie County, Ohio.