A number of the comments made in response to my sort-of recent post on the Ethics and Historicity of Photo "Restoration" started me thinking about photography and genealogy in general. There is a saying that the camera never lies. Some pundits have added the comment to read, photographs never lie until you edit them. As genealogists are we seeking Truth (with a capital T) or is genealogy an art where we express our subjective thoughts and impose them on history?
objective or subjective? Or both? What role do photographs have in
understanding the truth of genealogy? Does it make a difference to my
perception of historical truth if I can see photograph or a moving
picture? If I know that my great-grandfather's name was Henry Martin
Tanner, what does it add to see a picture?
is Henry and his wife Eliza and three of his seventeen children. What
do you know about Henry Tanner that you didn't know before looking at
the picture? The picture, for all it is worth, is no substitute for the
story, in words, of Henry's life. If you were doing genealogy and like
the fairy tales, only had one wish, would you wish for a narrative
biography or a photo? What if I had told you that the photo was of John
Brown of Albuquerque, New Mexico? Would your perception of the photo
change? What if I told you that the photo was of an unidentified family? What is the value of unidentified photos? What kind of effort
would you make to identify a photo? Would it matter if you found the
photo in your grandmother's diary as opposed to finding the photo in
second-hand store? By the way, the photo really is Henry Martin Tanner and his wife Eliza Ellen Parkinson. But a photo will always be ancillary to sourced information about a family or individual.
Why am I asking these questions? Hmm. The answer is pretty
simple. We are so saturated with images of every kind, we take images
for granted. Right where I am sitting writing, I can see dozens, perhaps
hundreds of images. But this was not always true. As you can see from
the photo of Henry and Eliza and children, this photo was not a casual,
spur of the moment thing. It took time, preparation and effort and as a
result, the photographer captured something of the soul of the family.
There truly is something so unique about the photo that the trite
saying, mere words cannot express, is literally true.
Why, if I am a photographer, do I take pictures primarily of
landscapes and buildings? Why don't I take pictures of people? (Before
you get too worried, I really do take a lot of pictures of people, I
just don't use them on the Internet. I am using the question in a
rhetorical sense). If pictures are so important, what about all the
people in your family who lived before the invention of photography?
OK, let's get serious. Photography is a art with a large measure
of technology and science. I may worry a lot about whether or not a
photograph is good or bad, but when it comes to photos of my now long
dead ancestors, the quality of the photograph is more of a bonus than a
requirement. No matter how poorly taken, if the photograph of my
great-grandmother is the only one I have, I will treasure it. But to
what extent is photography merely an adjunct to genealogy?
I think photography is valuable in itself as an art form and way
to translate reality. It is really not much different that any other
medium of expression, such as words or sculpture. But
as genealogists and historians we view photos as something entirely
different, they are not so much art but a confirmation of reality. No matter how much you have written about an individual or family, if you find a photograph, the person instantly becomes more tangible and the history comes alive.