Thursday, April 5, 2012

Historical Photographs: Insight and Value

The April/May issue of Canada's History Magazine contains a short article by Paul Jones, which highlights the ability of photographs to speak to the past.  In "Roots: Understanding Family Photos", Jones deconstructs a photograph of his wife's ancestors.  This deconstruction allows Jones to date the photograph, provide a location of the photograph, and the entire process provides him further insight into the family's actions.

Jones' experience brought two things to my mind: the importance of documenting your family photographs and the usefulness of photographs as historical sources.   Documenting your photographs (in pencil or non-corrosive ink of course) with the date, names of people in the photograph, photographer name, and location/event can be invaluable to later generations and historians.  Provenance is what creates great artifacts and allows heritage organizations to properly credit and describe their collections.  Documenting your family photographs can make correctly remembering events a lot easier.

Holland House Library, 1940
Photographs can contain a wealth of historical information. Roland Barthe's Camera Lucida notes "The important thing is that a photograph posses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on the photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation."  Photography allows for types of representation and interpretation that do not exist in written works.  Photographs can be used to examine no longer existing persons and structures - developments in built heritage are often tracked through period photographs.  Styles in fashion, social conduct, and family structure are all captured by photographs.

Additionally, the visual nature of photographs provides them with an advantage over written documents.  People tend to be drawn to images far more than a block of text.  Photographs are routinely used in outreach and instructional programming by local history groups, genealogists, educational institutions, museums, and archives.Historical photographs can be used to introduce people to history that they would otherwise have no interest in.  Glimpses into the past through photographs can be invaluable to all levels of historical practice.

Photo credits : zmustapha and Lee Cannon

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