Visual materials, such as photos, not only depict a place, but can also provide a deeper understanding of that place. While a single photo offers a single moment in the timeline of a place’s history, a group of photos of a larger region can suggest a much broader story, influenced by the connections between places and their history. Recently, I was given the opportunity to use Story Maps to explore this idea with a collection in the Prints and Photographs Division.
Developed by ESRI, a producer of Geographic Information System (GIS) software, Story Maps is used to develop interactive web applications, with the option for a mapping component. For my project, I turned to the work of photographer of Frances Benjamin Johnston, and her Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South (CSAS), a collection of just over 7,000 photos taken primarily in the 1930s. These photos provide a snapshot, if you will, of a specific era and region. They also tell us a lot about what came before, and about how the places of the American South had evolved to that point.
The CSAS photographs have been fully digitized and available online through the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog for ten years, so this was an opportunity to potentially expose them to a new audience, to unlock new insights and to encourage new stories. The resulting project, Surveying the South, is available for exploration on the Library of Congress website.
The story of CSAS is a compelling narrative, with the formidable Ms. Johnston as the main character as she takes on a challenging project of traveling over the highways and byways of the American South taking photographs. Her photos offer multiple insights, among them the story of the region as well as of the craftsmen, builders and architects who created the buildings that populated the South. The 1938 photo below, for example, offered a detailed view of the circa 1780 brickwork used in the Somers House of Gibsonville, North Carolina.
Johnston also was driven by an urgency to capture some of these structures to make sure they were not lost to history. No structure was too grand or too humble to make it onto Johnston’s wish list. In the two photos below, Johnston documented both the large plantation home of Belle Grove in Iberville Parish, Louisiana and slave quarters in Clarke County, Virginia. Both were falling into ruin, and both types of structures were key to the narrative of the American South and needed to be preserved, even if just on film. Describing the disparity between the two in words is hardly as effective as seeing it in these photos.
I used Surveying the South to highlight these photos, to make more prominent the extensive subject-based cataloging available and to share a bit of Johnson’s thoughts on the project and how she went about undertaking it. I also took the valuable location-based content in the existing catalog records and took advantage of the mapping component in Story Maps to present CSAS in a way we had not seen before – as an interactive map.
The value of a map for showing the scope of a collection like this cannot be overstated. Suddenly, I can see facts I already knew in a much more immediate and visual way: the varying size of the circles drive home the point that there are many photos of Virginia and comparatively very few of Alabama. The size of the circles on the map gives an idea of number of photos taken in various towns and cities. We can see both what is there – and what is not. Tennessee and Arkansas never made it into the project, for example. We get a much clearer picture of the architecture of Virginia and Maryland, near where Johnston lived, than of other areas, which impacts how a researcher might approach this collection. The map is interactive, and clicking on any one circle provides a pop-up window with the location and number of photos Johnston took there. Below is an example of a pop-up window and the resulting photos.
Feel free to take your own journey into the American South as it looked in the 1930s, dotted with remnants of its history, through Johnston’s photos and the interactive map!
- Explore Surveying the South, the Story Maps-based interactive application about the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South.
- View all of the current Story Maps from the Library of Congress. Keep your eye on that page for more projects coming soon, including two others featuring collection items from the Prints and Photographs Division.
- Search within the photos of the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. Read more about the collection and about the photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnston.