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Picturing the family
Picturing the family

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2.2 Photographs as primary sources

As a primary source of historical evidence the still photograph remains largely unexamined and unexplored. Many academic historians remain wedded to the written word and are often mistrustful or dismissive of the still image. Photographs continue to be used merely to prettify or to provide necessary breathing space in dense texts. In fact, the task of finding ‘illustrations’ is often only considered after a book is written. What could indicate more clearly that the photograph has never gained legitimacy as a historical record that can inform and mould authorial thinking and argument?

Photographs require as much scrutiny and critical analysis as written records. It is easy to think of them as ‘truthful’ and ‘objective’ because they are produced by a machine that reacts to light falling on the actual scene or subject. However, all photographs are created by human agency and photographers legitimately seek to influence viewers’ perceptions. A photograph does not present the subject ‘as it was’, but as the photographer wanted the viewer to see it.

Since 1839 various distinctive applications have evolved – portraiture, art photography, reportage, fashion, documentary and so on. Photographers working within these disciplines shared a common set of ideas about the nature and purpose of their work. They adopted practical procedures that enabled them to express these ideas in their photographs. Ideology and methodology worked together to shape the typical, generic image. We can learn about these ideas and practices from contemporary publications that offered advice to photographers.

Of course, there was cross-fertilization between the various applications and of course ideas and practices developed over time. But to explore the meaning conveyed by an image to its contemporary audience, we must try to understand the ideas and practices that shaped it. Our subject is domestic photography and the family album and these obviously belong to the portrait tradition. So in this course we shall identify the ideas underpinning the portrait tradition and investigate how these ideas translated into working practice.