Photographing History

In the first of three blog posts, we examine the use of photographs in historical research and ponders what they tell us and, importantly, what they might not tell us.

Photographs are often used to create memories, record events and enhance remembrance of those events. Common ideas about photographic images are that the camera, a mechanical device which captures an instance in time, never lies; that a photograph can speak a thousand words; and in some cultures it is believed that a photograph steals your soul – that your image is your inner essence.  Historians often use images to illustrate past conditions, to bring the past alive, create empathy and to highlight continuity and change over time. However, photographs are not undiluted images capturing past events as they actually occurred. Since the early days of photography, images have been manipulated.  Photographs can eliminate certain elements while emphasizing others. Photography does more than reflect reality; it also creates and interprets it.  For example, take the photo opportunity used by celebrities and politicians to create and enhance their public image and consider what is included and what is absent from these images.

Photographs capture a particular moment in time which is not necessarily a true representation of the subject’s past or even the event captured. They are our means of commemorating and remembering the past at a specific moment in time and like written records they are produced by individuals for a specific purpose. So we have to consider what they highlight and also what they omit. We also have to think about not only what the photograph shows, but also where and when the photograph was taken and by whom. Take for example these Cartes de Visite which are dated from the 1880s to the 1890s.



See more of our cartes de visite here.

In the Victorian and Edwardian period these images were used as visiting cards. They were fashionable and with new technology in photography reducing the cost of production they became accessible to working-class people as well as the wealthy. They were produced in large quantities by professional photographers, particularly between 1860 and 1900. They were not high art, but a provided a likeness of the sitter that could be produced inexpensively and were generally sold by the dozen. At a time when the cost of a camera and film development was out of the range of many working people, they could obtain twelve of the card images for as little as 6d. They then placed these cards on the hall tables of family and friends whom they visited or else sent them from other destinations within Britain and overseas. The images were collected and displayed publicly making these the equivalent of an early form of the social media ‘following’ used today. While people in the past did not ‘follow’ each other on Facebook or Twitter they did interact through these cartes de visite.

However these are only a snapshot as the images are all posed. They were all taken in studios with particular furniture and decor used to enhance the picture which often bore no relation to the living conditions of those they portrayed. The people being photographed were often wearing the only smart outfit that they owned and had obviously taken time to enhance their appearance for public consumption and memorabilia.  The images above are from our own scanned collection of visiting cards covering the late 19th century and early 20th. The vast majority are of working-class Scots.

Occasionally, these cartes de visite were also an amusing snapshot of time, place and personality, as in this late 19th century image sent from India to a Scottish family. Many photographs from the Victorian period are either intensely sober and, occasionally,  bizarre but the little boy on roller skates hints at mischief and a keen sense of humour.


In our next blog post we will examine photographic representations of family and masculinity.

One thought on “Photographing History”

Comments are closed.