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.