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Teaching History with Photographs

Larry A. Viskochil
Research and Narrative

Do teachers today believe the often-quoted old Chinese adage, "A picture is worth ten thousand words?" Do their pupils? Do parents believe that their children should be as diligently taught to examine pictures as they were taught the "three R's?" In today's visual age, it is a rare ten thousand words that is given as much attention as the constant stream of images that pass before our eyes. We have been taught how to read text but have we been as carefully taught how to critically see? Throughout history many people could more readily comprehend a familiar image than interpret their alphabet. But literacy itself cannot make people read or make them want to understand their world. Even today the average American gets most of his or her information from pictures rather than from the printed word. For many people, the products of the camera-photographs, motion pictures, television, etc.—have all but replaced the products of the printing press. More than two-thirds of all Americans get most of their news from television, and almost half get all their news that way.

Taking family photos

It is not so much that people cannot read today as that they can choose not to when there are so many other choices to inform or entertain. Many homes contain few, if any, books. Stereo music equipment manufacturers, for example, have almost stopped advertising "bookshelf" speakers and components, since few homes have bookshelves anymore to put them on. Now instead, they sell special "rack system" furniture to hold the more ubiquitous music and television sets. Nearly every home has equipment to capture and display the sights and sounds of modern life. Over 98 percent of American households own at least one television set—more, in fact, than have indoor plumbing. Videotape recorders and, increasingly, video cameras, are commonly found in the homes of many segments of the population.

Nearly every household owns at least one camera capable of taking still photographs. It has been estimated that Americans take about one billion photographs each month! While many of the images are of poor quality and are (perhaps blessedly) lost or discarded, a good selection of them are retained and become treasured keepsakes in family albums. An average family might have two hundred or more snapshots and family portraits stored away in scrapbooks, desk drawers, and old shoeboxes in the closet. If every household in every city and town in this country were to add up the number of photographs in home collections, the number would represent a huge photographic resource. In Chicago alone, with about a million households, the potential would be over two hundred million family-owned photographs. Add to this number the millions of photographs owned by commercial businesses and public institutions and the total number of images in archives of one kind or another is truly staggering.

With so many images flying by us, how do we get them to be more than a mere blur? While it may be difficult to "freeze frame" the moving images that are constantly fed to us in an unrelenting effort to entertain or persuade us, we can more easily stop and focus on the still images within our control. Unless we learn how to become more visually literate we will be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of images offered to us and become a nation of "glancers" rather than "lookers." Teachers can add a fourth "R" to the original "three


R's'—the skill to read pictures and to recognize what we see in an increasingly visual world.

If people are too busy to read in the conventional sense, why would they wish to be taught to take the time and effort to learn to see? To most people pictures are fun— a comfortable medium that seemingly does not require the use of language skills, formal education, or much life experience. This confidence, lack of intimidation, and eagerness to accept has not been lost on purveyors of "info-tainment" productions. Teachers, too, will find that today's students will feel a natural affinity to the visual mediums that seem most normal to their own generation. Photographs are omnipresent in the daily lives of most students. Pictures in school books, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements are so familiar as to be second nature to all but the most isolated. Those images are so common, however, that many see them as mere illustration or even as a sort of wallpaper of our lives, with little or no meaning beyond decoration.

Photography's main gift to mankind was as a new tool for communication. For the first time it was possible to readily document and distribute news and description from around the world in ways that were both understandable and believable. Eventually the new ways to tell each other about ourselves and to learn from strangers what photography offered would expand until it seemed that we all lived in the same global village. We no longer had to take somebody else's word for something. Now—with pictures—we could see for ourselves. Photography became the most democratic of the arts, both practical and available to all.

Social scientists and other observers were quick to realize the possibilities that this new tool provided to study ourselves and our surroundings. The photograph allowed us to preserve the present for further contemplation, to collect evidence for detailed research, to compare cultures in ways never imagined, to count more thoroughly than any written census, to illustrate with less prejudice, to describe things for which we had no words, and to measure change in our environment and even in our own appearance. Each discipline found its own uses for photographs, but those who directly studied the story of man—the archaeologist, the anthropologist, the sociologist, the historian, and other social scientists—seemed especially rewarded with applicable visual data. The photograph, as cultural artifact and as primary source document, was a new tool that could enhance or even replace the written text that had served them almost exclusively before its arrival.

Historians and the other social scientists must learn how to efficiently use this new tool before they can take advantage of it and share their conclusions with others. To do this they must have some understanding of the history and use of the equipment and the processes involved in making a photographic negative and print. Knowing what the possibilities and limitations of photography are will help the historian judge the form, content, and context of individual photographs and, consequently, their meaning and utility. Knowing how a photograph is taken or what a photograph is physically made of can help tell us what a photograph is about or why it was taken.

Child posing for a photo

Shortly after Louis Jacques Dagurerre unveiled his photographic process in France in 1839, people described the resulting daguerreotype plate as the "mirror with a memory." From the beginning, people were aware that the fixing of an image on a piece of polished metal made it an instant historical record, a document that remembered for all time the way something looked only a moment before. Each record was unique, however, because there was no negative and, therefore, another photograph would have to be taken if more than one person wanted to keep a copy of the same memory. From the production of this first daguerreotype, the history of the medium was a constant search for a way to produce images in a easier, cheaper, and more repeatable way.

Later processes gradually succeeded the daguerreotype, improving the medium until photography reached the pervasive medium that it is today. The ambrotype, the tintype, and other forms of cased images relatively quickly replaced the daguerreotype. They, in turn, were replaced by the various types of paper prints produced from the wet and dry plate-glass negative. Paper prints mounted on cards, such as the carte de visite, the cabinet card, and the stereograph soon pushed the more fragile cased photographs aside, and people eagerly collected and displayed the cheaper and more accessible copies in family albums or looked at them in special viewers. From


This is not a Pipe

those early processes the photographic industry rapidly moved to the ubiquitous silver gelatin print and to the color print and transparency more common today. The historian viewing these images today will want to know as much about when and how the images were made as he will want to study what these images depict. Among the best histories on the subject is Robert Taft's Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839-1889 (New York: Dover, 1964).

Like the textual records he may be more familiar with, the historian will want to carefully examine the medium's processes and techniques for clues as to the veracity and value of the records to his research. Who took the pictures, when and why were they taken, how and where were they made and under what circumstances, and what do they show? How are the documents identified, and is the identification believable or thorough?

To answer those questions the photographic researcher has to learn to analyze photographs much like a detective looking for clues at the scene of a crime or in a laboratory. He or she must examine all of the evidence present on the object that physically makes up the photograph, the method and intent of the photographer, and the subject shown (intentionally or not) in the image preserved on the surface of the object.

By knowing when historical photographic processes or techniques were first introduced, when they were widespread, and when they were last used, the historian can often approximately date an image or understand the circumstances under which it was made. Photographs after all, unlike many other forms of communication, are made in real time and cannot be made before or after an event through the imagination of an artist or author.

All too often many inexperienced researchers look at a photograph's written caption and stop there. The caption, whether written by the photographer, an archivist, or a publisher is only one way of looking at the many kinds of data that each photograph may contain. It is up to the historian/researcher/detective to begin the investigation by examining the evidence and interrogating the witness. For example, many historical photographs have other writing or printing on the front or back of the print that may help identify the photographer or publisher or present other useful clues for determining what the image is or when or why the photograph was taken. Does the print have the photographer's signature, the name of his studio or address, restrictions on its use, dates or inventory numbers, etc.? If so, the researcher may be able to locate additional historical data by tracking the photographer down in directories, advertisements, official documents, newspapers, or registers.

Many methodologies have been used by art historians and others for examining and interpreting images. One often-cited approach, although essentially an aesthetic one, that is still useful for the study of all photographs was proposed by John Szarkowski in The Photographer's Eye, an exhibition catalog published in 1966 by the Museum of Modern Art. His fundamental conclusion is that there was a major difference between the way paintings are made and the way photographs are taken. The principal attribute of photography is that it was a process of selection rather than synthesis. As a way to talk about the issues a photographer must keep in mind when taking a photograph and the issues a viewer must remember when analyzing the preserved image, Szarkowski listed five characteristics or problems that appear inherent in the medium itself.


What the photographer taking the picture and the historian viewing it must understand is that while the camera deals with recording factual things and events that form the subject of the photograph, it only produces a perceived reality that is remembered after the thing or event has passed. While people believe that photographs do not lie, this is an illusion caused by the mistaken belief that the subject and the picture of the subject is the same thing. One is reminded of the written inscription on the famous painting of a "pipe" by the Cubist painter Rene Magritte that refutes what we believe we are seeing by saying "This is not a pipe." Indeed it is a painting of a pipe and not a real pipe in the same way that a photograph of a subject is both an artifact and a record of what the photographer captured with his camera from nature. Because we see reality in different ways, we must understand that we are looking at different truths rather than the truth and that, therefore, all photographs lie in one way or another.


Old time camera

Today's technological advances in digital manipulation of images that the public sees regularly in photographs and films now only makes it easier to understand what has always been true.



If the scene selected by the photographer shows too much, he has only to isolate those facts (to lie?) that will best support the truth. The camera's lens records the trivial with such clarity that the interpreter of the scene must carefully select the clues which, because they make things real, act as important symbols more than as story tellers. If a photographer cannot easily record a concept such as the "social class" or "economic condition" of a family or community or region, he can record a partial view that will allow viewers to select details that will help illustrate the truths or lies he is intending to convey. Does the photographic image contain symbols that mean "poverty or plenty," "lower or middle class," "squalor or comfort?" (See Figures with Activity 1 and 2.) Photographs of domestic interiors can, with careful reading, include as much useful data to answer those kinds of questions as written academic descriptions or official reports and can also generate an emotional or intellectual response. What other details did the photographer capture, on purpose or by accident, that will help the historian identify the subject or decipher the circumstances under which it was recorded? Does a careful examination, perhaps with a magnifying glass, reveal names on street signs or store windows, advertisements on billboards or posters, fashions from clothing or hairstyles, dates from auto license plates or calendars, or other pieces of evidence that help make this image part of a story as well as a picture?


The photographer selects rather than conceives a picture by choosing what will be inside and outside the four edges of the frame in his camera's viewfinder. Those edges take things out of context and define the content of the subject. The image of a politician speaking to potential supporters could be perceived quite differently if the photographer took a tightly composed close-up view showing only an attentive crowd and the speaker or if he framed a larger view from the back of a large meeting hall that showed the same small group along with a sea of mostly empty chairs at a sparsely attended event. In this case what was left out of the frame was as important as what was included within its borders.


Unlike other kinds of visual records, the photograph is always made in the present time. The slice of time that the photographer preserves instantly transforms the present into the past. Another photograph taken a moment later is of a slightly different subject and is a different photograph. The camera, however, can serve as a time machine in a way that no other instrument of communication can, making it a valuable ally of the historian. Throughout photography's history, as the technology improved, the length of time necessary to trip a shutter or expose the film continued to shorten so that the blurs and shakes evident in the beginning gradually were decreased. Nevertheless, the process is still not instantaneous, and all photographs are, in a sense, time exposures. The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson tried to indicate the importance of choosing the visually correct instant to make an exposure by referring to it as the "decisive moment." Is the picture of a steeple falling from a burning church the same as the picture of the burnt remains? Viewers should also ask themselves how an image would be historically different if it had been taken earlier or later. How differently would a photograph of street life look were it taken at first light before the morning rush hour or on the same street at mid-afternoon? How different the same scene in January or July or from decade to decade? When time is stopped it creates a slice of time, a picture rather than a whole story.


When the photographer is out of his studio and cannot move his subject, he must move his camera. His vantage point for seeing his subject can be from above or below, from in front or in back, and from any of the other angles we are now used to seeing, thanks to the creativity of photographers. Often the point of view calls attention to subjects or details that we might not have thought important otherwise. The foreshortening caused by the use of a telephoto lens,


Downtown Photo

Courtesy of Chicago Historical Society.
Photograph ICHi - 04191,
Photographer unknown

for example, can make a viewer aware of the seeming density of some urban architecture or traffic on a city street by making things look closer together than they appear with a wider lens or with the human eye.

While Szarkowski's method for evaluating photographs is primarily aesthetic in nature, most photographs that have been taken over the decades, and most of the photographs that are available for historical research, were taken (and kept) for more prosaic reasons than for art. Among those most useful to historians were photographs made to document or to describe people, places, things, and events for the purposes of reporting news, encouraging reform, advertising a product or service, promoting a government program, explaining a scientific or industrial process, or illustrating an idea. Fortunately, many of the images made to accomplish those tasks are readily available for historical study.

Sitting for a Portrait

Most photographs, once taken, seldom travel very far from where they were taken. The richest source of images about a neighborhood, for example, is the neighborhood itself. A family keeps most of its pictures in a family album that is kept close at hand. The same is true for most other local institutions. Churches, schools, businesses, organizations, etc. all tend to be the best sources of pictures about themselves. Public archives cannot hope to store very many of the photographs produced by all of the private individuals and commercial institutions that take them, so they attempt to collect and store representative samples of the visual universe made available to them. Historical researchers should investigate both kinds of collections to be able to study as large a visual "database" on their subject as possible. Both private and public visual collections should also be approached with the same cautions that would be applied to the use of books and other written documents. In addition to looking at as large a database as possible, the researcher should learn as much as he or she can about the provenance of the collection and the individual photographs within it. Who ordered their creation and why? Who was the photographer, and what was his or her purpose and bias? Are the images representative of the subject, or do they present an unusual viewpoint? Is that viewpoint valid? How are the photographs arranged within an album or in a file? Do they relate to each other the way the creator intended, or does a different arrangement serve the new purposes of a different owner? If the photographs earlier discarded by the creator or by an archive had been kept, would they have told the same story as those that were kept? Are the discarded images, or the stories they tell, available in other ways? Does the use of photographs created or collected as one of the genres mentioned above change the meaning of a collection or an individual image when it is used for another purpose? For example, would photographers employed by newspapers, reform organizations, or governmental agencies have had the same access to an event, and could their very presence have changed the appearance of the subject or the course of the event?

Photographs are important windows into the past that can be appreciated both for their aesthetic attributes and for the incredible amounts of data that they may contain. When used with other artifacts and text, photographs can provide a balanced look at our history that the written, printed, or spoken word alone cannot provide.

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