Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

It has been my experience that people best appreciate history when they can somehow make a strong connection to the past. People do this in many different ways. Some people prefer to make a genealogical connection. Family ties that go back over many generations can prove to be some of the strongest connections to history. For an example, just see what impact the mini-series Roots had on Americans (both black and white) to rediscover long lost kin of the past. For others, material culture items provides a link. One reason museums are so popular is that people want to see the "stuff" of long ago and make comparisons to the "things" of today. These artifacts, whatever they may be, form an irregular timeline where one can plot the advance of technology, changes in fashion, or just passing fads. For instance, my dad collected antique hand planes for many years before he passed away. I think he did so not only because he liked "old stuff," but also to show an appreciation for the tools of those long ago, and to honor the artisans who loved woodworking as much as he did. Planes provided that connection for him.

Personally, one of my favorite ways to connect with the past is through photographs. Sure, paintings and sketches are fine, but there is nothing quite like looking at a photograph to capture that specific instant in history when it was taken. I feel fortunate that photography was invented during my favorite era of history, the 19th century. It is one thing to read a contemporary description of a person, landscape, or event, but to see it for yourself and to make judgements on your own provides a different level of interaction with the past. It is my opinion that we would not know near as much about our past as we do were it not for photographs. Photographs have proven in many cases to be more lasting than actual artifacts. People tend to throw out old things such as clothes and other items that wear out or break, but photographs have a way of staying around and being passed from one generation to the next, kept in shoe boxes, photograph albums, or trunks in the attic. In many cases we students of the past would have less to go on, and telling the story of something past would be quite incomplete without photographic resources.

Photographs also serve as a way to remember. I think this is the reason why most photographs are taken in the first place is to capture that "Kodak moment." I know that my memory of past events of in my life would not be near as sharp were it not for the pictures to help remind me.

If you have family photographs, please take care of them, or at least find someone who wants them. Take time to identify who is in your photographs so future generations have a greater appreciation for who or what they are viewing. You never know, the one photograph you have of someone might be the only one in existence. Preserve on!

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