When I look at my family photographs, the stories behind them usually come flooding back to me. I recall the occasion–and often people and events I associate with the occasion, even if they aren’t shown in the pictures. But lacking those personal associations, photographs–especially historical photographs–can seem like vast mysteries–or closed storybooks.
Now a wonderful new series of videos demonstrates that every photo is a story waiting to be discovered. Prints and Photographs Division reference librarian (and Picture This blogger) Kristi Finefield discusses strategies for researching photographs with historian Sam Watters.
Sam Watters faced boxes worth of mysteries when he first began to research the more than 1,100 lantern slides in the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection. Many of the beautifully hand-colored and very fragile glass slides lacked any information whatsoever about what was shown in the slide or what purpose the slide had served. Using examples from the collection, Kristi and Sam together re-trace the methods he used to identify the photographs and to understand their significance.
One of my favorite parts of the video series is the discussion of how to look at a photograph. Photographs seem so accessible that the process of looking at them seems instinctive. What skill is needed to see what’s right in front of you? But Sam and Kristi illustrate how using techniques for examining the fronts and backs of photographs and looking at every detail yields questions to explore. And they make the point that sometimes it’s hard to separate the content we’re seeing from our assumptions about it, so systematically questioning ourselves about what we think we see can be an important initial step.
Do you enjoy stories that involve piecing together clues that lead to an “aha” moment? As you proceed through the videos, look out for one such moment involving a photograph Sam and Kristi examine in the first video.
Kristi and Sam do such a great job of demonstrating the pleasures and rewards of coming to understand the stories in a photograph by looking closely at it, learning about the photographer, studying the era in which the photographer was working, and becoming familiar with the technology used to make the photograph, that you’ll likely finish each video ready to try out the techniques yourself. You’re in luck! Kristi devised “Try it Yourself” exercises that accompany each video, and she supplied pointers to resources that are helpful in completing the activities.
We hope you enjoy the videos, the exercises, and the process of discovering the many stories photographs have to tell.
- Have a look at the “Every Photo is a Story” Web site, which links to all the videos, the exercises, and resources for further exploration. (Note: The videos are also accessible through YouTube.)
- Read about the Frances Benjamin Johnston lantern slides that Sam Watters researched and view the slides in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
- Watch the “Books and Beyond” lecture Sam Watters recorded in 2012, where he discussed his book, Gardens for a Beautiful America, 1895-1935.
- Explore resources and activities listed on our “Researcher’s Toolbox” page.