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Historical Context, Contemporary Value: Old Photos as Cultural Documents

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Read Time: 4 min
This post is part of a series called How to Retouch, Recover, and Restore Old Photographs.
Why Do We Restore Old Photographs?
How to Handle Archival Photos and Documents Properly

The Origins of a Photograph

With some photographs, you might look at them and instantly recognise a relative or a place. Sometimes, even turning a photo over can reveal a wealth of information. Our predecessors were meticulous at writing on the backs of photos. This is still done today, and although I don't recommend that you scribble over them in permanent marker, it is a good idea to write any information you do know about the photo onto the back, using a photo-safe archival pen which you can pick up in most craft stores.

Knowing the context of an image is a big part of restoring and archiving. Why is this particular photograph worth saving? What does it tell us? If you don't know anything about the photograph, part of the fun and intrigue of archiving can be solving the mystery. The internet is most definitely our friend in this case, and in particular, history groups are now using social media to their advantage when it comes to figuring out missing parts of the story.

Norman KirtlanNorman KirtlanNorman Kirtlan
Norman Kirtlan, part of Sunderland Antiquarian Society who work tirelessly to preserve local history
‘It's incredible how many people actually do have information about streets, places and people. They write back and say ‘yes, I knew this person, I knew this street’, and identify photos. We've got a huge file of unknowns, butut one day I'm sure we'll get to the bottom of that identify everything’ – Normal Kirtlan, Sunderland Antiquarian Society

Why Does it Matter?

When you know some of the history of a photography, ask yourself, why is this important? Who’ll want to see this? A photograph might just be a shot of a street and it might not have any particular visual interest on first glance, but it could potentially tell us a lot about when and where it was taken. For example, what the houses are built from, whether there are any slate tiles on a roof, if there was a tram line running through that part of town. All of a sudden, a seemingly mundane photograph can start to paint a picture of a whole time and place.

‘We've got a lot of Victorian and portrait type photographs and we don't know anything other than the company who’ve taken the photograph. It does have its uses though, because you see different styles of dress and such like, you can do research, you can maybe recognise the place. If it's a crowd of people, and you can roughly date it, you can go into the newspapers.’ Norman
Vaux SunderlandVaux SunderlandVaux Sunderland
Vaux Brewery, Sunderland. Image courtesy of Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens

Maintaining Historical Context Through Restoration

A huge part of documenting the historical context of an image through restoration is to do just that, restore. We all know that the camera does lie, and did even in the days of glass plates or film. But when we've got a print from a certain era, we should try and stay true to the original. So while we would repair, we should never try to improve.

‘We use Photoshop, and we keep the original in its original condition.  Your photograph's a primary historical source; it's very important that we don't pretend, we don't make things up. We only restore what we know and we're actually restoring correctly and historically. If you've got a name on a shop which is obliterated, we'll have to leave that. I think it's very, very wrong to actually pretend and create something which isn't actually factually true.’ Martin Routledge – Keeper of History at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens

Photograph or Historical Document?

Sometimes, it can be tempting to take artistic license with something, but keep in mind that if you do that, it's no longer an historical document. We should treat archival photographs the way we treat photojournalism and documentary now. If you start to make changes and additions, then it becomes something else altogether.

As we move on in the digital age, it will be harder to know what is a true representation of the time. In some cases the original photographer might have removed a telephone pole or a pylon from an image because it looked messy. It's a point to consider when taking your own photographs now. Will my images become an historical document?

In the next tutorial we’ll look at the proper way to store and handle archival documents.

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