Picturing the Past

By Brad Miller, graduate assistant

All photographs have an interesting ability to transport us into the past. After all, once someone snaps a selfie or attempts to sit still for the 20+ second exposure of a daguerreotype, that moment has fallen into the grips of the past. In comparison to written words on a page (yes, pictures are worth a 1,000 words), images illicit a strong connection to people of the past, including the individuals we used to be. Except for those embarrassing photographs your parents insisted on taking the first day of school; those we can forget. They allow us to literally “picture” the past as it was, right?

Homer Pittard Campus School Papers

Homer Pittard Campus School Papers

Well, yes and no. Like most aspects of historical research, it is kind of complicated. Photographs are primary sources that require researchers to critically analyze what they are looking at to find more meaning and gain a sense of understanding. When we are viewing photographs either in an archive or on the front page of the newspaper, we always need to ask more questions. What is the focus of the image? Why is that the focus? Why did the photographer capture one moment of an event, but not another? Was the photograph staged or was it a candid shot of life? We also need to question how are own identity alters our perceptions of photographs.

I recently finished rehousing, scanning, and describing all of the photographs from the Donald A. Price Papers. The photographs help us track Price throughout his life: four years at the United States Military Academy at West Point, a year in Korea, two tours in Vietnam, and over a decade in military intelligence. The photographs alone, however, reveal a much different past in comparison to Price’s letters to his wife or the official military records of his service. We only have the images of things that Price chose to document, and even those may not have made it through the selection process for Price’s donation to the Gore Center. Below I have included just 6 of the 281 images from the the Price Papers and attached a few questions to each one. What questions come to mind upon your first glimpse?

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The choices of photographers are no different than the choices people make while writing a letter. They choose specific words to describe their experiences or prefer to write about their successes rather than their failures. Everyone leaves more than just the content of a letter or the images in a photograph, they leave a long list of indirect clues that historians can analyze to better understand their intention. What do your photographs say about you?

Keep an eye out for the release of the Donald A. Price papers and online access to his photographs on the Gore Center website.

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