Saturday, April 21, 2012

Investigative Fun with Photo Manipulation

There are hundreds of photographs from the Civil War era on the Library of Congress website.  Most of these images come in different size formats that allow the researcher to increase the size of the selected photograph without losing resolution. These photographs were originally taken on large-format glass plate negatives, which makes this possible. The format that allows the greatest increase with magnificent clarity are called TIFF files. TIFF stands for Tagged Image File Format.

By downloading the TIFF file to one's desktop and then opening it with say Windows Office Picture Manager (if you have a PC) the researcher can manipulate the size of the photograph to see much greater detail.  Then, if one wants to focus in on something in particular, it is possible to crop that part of the picture and save it.  It's a great deal of fun, and I'll warn you, it's something you can spend hours doing; it's kind of addictive.

The image above was taken in 1862 in Culpeper, Virginia by photographer Timothy O'Sullivan or one of his assistants.  It shows a Union solider  leaning on a fence while another soldier sits by a few steaming pots.  Another individual, probably another soldier, is partially hidden by the vertical fence post on the right of the image.

An African American man is seated in the center of the image.  It is difficult to see with just the standard image, but if one enlarges it (as below), it is easy to see that he is missing part of a leg and is leaning on a homemade crutch.  Naturally questions arise. Is this man a slave?  Is he a free man?  How old is he?  How was he injured? Is he looking for some work he can do? Is he talking to the standing soldier?  If so, what are they talking about?

When the image is enlarged more visible details come out.

Unless one looks closely in the original photograph, the three African American women in the background behind the seated soldier might be missed entirely. One woman is sitting facing the other two that are standing and apparently looking into the camera. Two of them have head wraps and at the least the two standing are wearing aprons.  Possibly they were doing laundry as it appears there is full clothesline behind them. Are these women slaves? Are they "contraband?" If they are doing laundry, are they working for the army? Or, are they possibly cooking whatever it is that is steaming in the pots?  Is there even food in the pots, or is the water steaming hot for doing laundry?

Extreme closeup detail can even be achieved as can be seen in the above cropped image. This closeup is of the tin cup between the center sitting soldier's feet.  As you can see, a shadow in the original photograph makes it almost impossible to see, but enlarged even the shape of the handle is easily visible. Obviously, being able to see such detail as this has the ability to give researchers a much better idea of the material culture of the Civil War era.

Additionally, this could be a great exercise for students.  They could be assigned an image from the Library of Congress website to download and manipulate and then report on what details they found and what research they used to answer some of their questions the image's details brought up.

Get started now by going to:

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