I ran across this photo several months ago while looking for something else, and immediately laughed and put it in my “don’t try this at home” file.
But what I definitely recommend you do try at home, or anywhere else you have an opportunity, is to talk about pictures with others. It almost always adds perspective and insights. This case was no exception: sharing this picture with a colleague spurred some of my favorite “C’s” in my personal list of the seven C’s of visual literacy (close looking, curiosity, comparing & contrasting, conventions, context, conversation, and caution).
The photo negative came without any caption, and so when our staff cataloged it, they supplied a title that describes the content of the photo (we could tell because of the square brackets around the title, and the note in the description that gave the source of the title). In conversing about the photo with fellow-blogger and reference librarian Kristi Finefield, however, she noted that she thought it was part of a series of photos about activities at the Fort Myer officers’ training school in Virginia. Curiosity drove us to her computer. From her close looking at the photo, and with a bit of hunting through the online collection, sure enough: she found a captioned photo that has what appears to be the same building in the background.
Through the Fort Myer connection, Kristi found the photo on the left. It features a more traditional hurdle for horse jumping (and a non-officer rider) that establishes a visual connection with the “human hurdle” photo that launched our visual odyssey, although admittedly the artificial stone wall was probably portable. By comparing photo details, Kristi’s eagle eye detected that the same or a very similar wall appears in the background of my “caught our eyes” photo.
Happily, Kristi also discovered some more “human hurdle” pictures in the collection. The varying dates suggest this type of horsemanship display was rather habitual.
Kristi’s acquaintance with the Fort Myer pictures also revealed documentation of somewhat less extreme training activities in progress at the camp: bed making!
Curiosity may yet drive me on to pursue some of the other elements of visual literacy. What was the context for taking these photographs? What message were they meant to convey and to what audience? What equipment did the photographer use to take the pictures, and what were the capabilities or limitations of that equipment? And, equipment considerations aside, what pictorial conventions might the photographer have tapped in depicting training activities at Fort Myer, for instance in the way the photographs were composed and how the subjects were portrayed?
Researching the context for the photos may help fill in the whys and wherefores of these pictures and to help to explore what got documented, and what got left out. As always with historical pictures, I’ll exercise healthy caution–for instance, about relying on the accuracy of original captions likely scribbled by hurried photographers or other hands in intervening years, as well as about my own assumptions regarding the photographs and how they came to be made.
Happening on the photo of the leaping horse and sharing it with others has definitely enriched my viewing and thinking. With photos, it never pays to leap to conclusions, but you can almost always enjoy the ride!
- Survey other photographs of Fort Myer in the Harris & Ewing Collection. What range of activities do you spot?
- Some Harris & Ewing photographs have lengthy captions, and others came with no caption at all. Have a look at a set we shared on Flickr to gather ideas about what particular caption-less pictures show: Mystery Photos–What’s the Story? If you hover over the photos, you’ll see that some mysteries remain to be solved!
- Explore visual literacy concepts in greater depth through our series of videos, “Every Photo is a Story.”
- Step back through previous “Caught Our Eyes” posts — maybe it will spark an eye-opening conversation!