Using Photographs As Historical Evidence

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Photographs are among the key primary sources available to historians, and appear to provide a window into the past. They can be used to reconstruct major historic events and to recapture the vibrant urban culture of towns and cities. However, the sensati

Photographs are among the key primary sources available to historians, and appear to provide a window into the past. They can be used to reconstruct major historic events and to recapture the vibrant urban culture of towns and cities. However, the sensation of being given unmediated access to the past is deceptive, and historians must examine their own procedures, methods and assumptions when using photographs.

The photographs preserved in archival collections tend to have been taken for specific reasons. Some represent towns and cities at their best (many of these images reappear as postcards); some show cities in transition, and depict the laying of tramlines or the demolition and erection of buildings. Others chronicle major public events, such as Royal visits and civic ceremonies.

However, using photographs for research is problematic. Elizabeth Edwards presented a research paper entitled ‘Thinking with Photographs’ at Northumbria University on 1 May 2008. See also Edwards, E. and Hart, J. (eds.) (2003) Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. London: Routledge. Edwards has identified the ‘beguiling realism’ of photographs, which seem to offer the promise of truth and neutrality.

Victorian street trader, Newcastle.

Photographs appear to give an unmediated view of the past, free of the partiality that colours written documents. However, the illusion of direct contact is just that: an illusion. Photographs are not unmediated: in each case, the subject has been selected, framed, and thus partially constructed by the photographer. Photographs contain a ‘chaos of information’: they preserve an instant, but this too is problematic due to the entropic nature of urban space.

How do we know that the flow of life captured within the frame is at all typical of the space depicted? Furthermore, the image itself is formed by mechanical and chemical processes, and may have been cropped, retouched or tinted. Furthermore, photographs do not exist as disembodied images. They are objects with particular social currency, and may be passed around, mounted or collected in albums according to a range of social conventions and practices which are historically specific.

Further problems arise when consulting images in archives.  Unfortunately, photographs are not always subject to the same procedures of documentation as other archival sources. In many cases, the name of the photographer has not been recorded, nor is there any information as to why the photograph was taken. Photographs are often undated, or the dates may prove to be inaccurate when cross-referenced with other sources, such as street directories.

In the fields of architectural history or urban studies, photographs can be compared with architectural plans, illustrations from the building press, street directories, and the buildings themselves (where they survive) in order to test and corroborate the information contained within them. Ultimately, it is crucial to reposition photographs as constitutive of the discourses of urban space. 

The unveiling of the Queen Victoria Monument, Newcastle upon Tyne, 24 April 1903.

The same site several years later, revealing how the surrounding architecture has changed.

St. Nicholas Square, Newcastle.

Collingwood Street, Newcastle.

How to Know if a Photograph is Real

With all of today’s digital cameras and computer software, it seems it is hard to know whether or not a photograph is real or if it has been what is called Photoshopped. This is becoming a problem with fake photographs. Many times you can tell if a photo is legitimate or not, but others are faked so well, it is hard to know for sure.

With today’s computer software, someone could easily manipulate a rare photo for example and pass it off as a legitimate and rare photograph.

Thankfully there is also computer software that can verify the legitimacy of a photograph and other ways to determine if a photograph is legitimate. Since most photographs are already cataloged on the internet, looking at a photo and comparing the two photographs is very helpful to determine if a photo is legit.

Using a reverse search on Google can also help. This can help determine the legitimacy of a photo. For example if the picture is of someone standing at a well known place, using this technique can find if the picture of the well known place is exactly the same photo on the internet, for example a travel website.

Foto Forensics is another website that uses a technique called Error Level Analysis. This site can help determine a photograph’s legitimacy.

Please see my related articles:

https://knoji.com/how-to-research-architectural-history/

https://knoji.com/architectural-history/

https://knoji.com/architects-to-a-diocese-dunn-and-hansom-of-newcastle-1/

https://knoji.com/cragside-romantic-country-house-of-a-victorian-inventor/

https://knoji.com/langham-tower-a-spectacular-victorian-mansion/

https://knoji.com/conservation-in-art-architecture-and-literature-2/

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