thinking with pictures

Photo as portal to historical or geographically distant place

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Bicycling past an old house from 120-30 years ago, layered with many generations of memories and coats of paint, my mind was cast back to those years when this place was erected and the first residents moved in and paid the mortgage, month by month; how the food was purchased or grown and then prepared and served, and how waste was managed before the days of packages, curbside removal service and so forth. So often one’s view of the past, or of social life foreign to one’s own is telescoped, rather than wide-angle, panoramic or even the “normal” proportions of the camera lens which is between telephone and wide-angle.

If “being there” in the place and time, and being fluent in the language and current events of a particular context equates to “on the ground” viewpoint, then the experience of most people who explore the past events and lives (or foreign stories) through books and images equates to a “birds-eye view” with the advantage of altitude giving a wide view and possibly a processual (longitudinal) one, but also with the disadvantage of being far from the “boots on the ground” standpoint, where foreground and background (visual and intellectual) determine the person’s perspective.

If this contrast between (distant) aerial view and close-up, lived view is accurate, then one can take historical or foreign photos as a window (or door) into that unfamiliar ground. The faint shadows and subjects frozen on paper or computer screen can be the starting point for one’s imagination to use guided reconstruction to produce a hypothetical “typical day” as lived out. In other words, given a photo and enough imagination, and prompted to answer questions that lead away from the distant aerial view and instead produce the visual and mental experience of being there, “on the ground” (literally and figuratively), then one can almost be transported to the lived experience; the “first person singular” effect.

>example photo,

from Library of Congress collection

Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia. Capt. J.B. Howard, Office of Assistant Quartermaster, Army of the Potomac


Author: gpwitteveen

Better Outreach is my aim. See to know more.

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