Double Take: Churning Questions

In the latest installment in our occasional series, Double Take, we take a first – and second look – at the photo below. View the image and remember your very first impression before scrolling down to read further.

Woman churning milk to butter. Photo copyrighted by J. W. Dunn, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a24613

Woman churning milk to butter. Photo copyrighted by J. W. Dunn, 1897. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a24613

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the first thought in my mind about this photo was: Girl looking at her phone. If you’re like me, you see hundreds of people a day in her exact posture: head tilted down and eyes focused on a rectangular device in hand. A moment later, I can dismiss that thought as in error, but how do I know?

How do I know this is not a modern photograph? Observe the details of the girl’s clothing, her activity and her environment. Her stained apron and dress suggest daily wear, not costume. Her distracted churning suggests both a time period where making butter was a regular chore and something that took time. The item in her hand appears to be a book. Her environment is simple and rough, no modern conveniences in sight. These observations all taken together make me think this is legitimately an older photo. In truth, as the copyright notice on the corner of the photo confirms, this is a photograph taken in 1897. While her multi-tasking – and distraction – is quite modern, the photo is not. My simple, initial reaction is a reminder that we bring our modern day sensibilities to our viewing of historic photographs. For better or worse, our interpretation of a scene is influenced by our own knowledge, bias or experience.

Another way to understand an image is to ask yourself why the photographer chose this moment to take the picture. In the case of the first photo, was he showing butter churning is a boring task and a little entertainment is needed? Is the photographer trying to show that inattention permits sneaky kittens to steal the fruits of hard labor? Or is he interested in portraying a peaceful moment during a hard day’s work? Did he pose her or come upon the scene naturally?

What can we learn from other images? I found additional photos in our collections from the same time period of people churning butter to see how this task was interpreted by different photographers. What do you see? What details stand out and inform your understanding of the two scenes below?

[Little girl wearing white chemise, beaded necklace, and high-button shoes on porch with butter churn.] Photo, circa 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3f06076

[Little girl wearing white chemise, beaded necklace, and high-button shoes on porch with butter churn.] Photo, circa 1900. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3f06076

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Churning butter with old-fashioned dasher churn, creamery, East Aurora, N.Y. Photo copyrighted by Keystone View Co., 1905.

In the clean, well-lit scene at left, a young girl is wearing pristine white clothes, smiling for the camera and perhaps only posing as if she is churning butter. On the right, the scene is much less controlled. A chicken roams, a small child frowns from behind the churn, the woman’s clothes are wrinkled and worn, and she pays no attention to the camera. The caption suggests the photo is more about the churn itself, and the woman is secondary, while in the photo on the left, the young girl appears to be the focus.

The three photos show the same activity, but feel like they were taken with three very different goals in mind. Questioning your own assumptions and looking closely at every detail in an image can reveal the story of a photo. Considering those details can also offer clues about photographer intent and purpose.

Chinning, not churning. Photo copyrighted by E. W. Kelley, 1906. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b11640

Chinning, not churning. Photo copyrighted by E. W. Kelley, 1906. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b11640

Sometimes, the intent of a photo is perfectly clear, as in our last butter churning photo. Humor is the goal here, as these two find a different way to pass the time!

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One Comment

  1. Donna
    November 18, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    What wonderful photos and observations on what one might see!! As a veterinarian, of course I was immediately drawn to the little kitten and my observation revolved around him!! So true that what we bring from our daily lives determines how we view a photo!! Thanks!

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