Article, December 2010
Millions of Historic Photos Online
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host
I have always been interested in history, especially military history. Sadly, I find that most of today's college students are blissfully ignorant about history, unless it was in a fictional Oliver Stone movie, or shown on Comedy Central. Many students are oblivious to the fact that almost all major Hollywood productions are works of fiction, and that those based on historical incidents are liberally modified with "poetic license" to make them more exciting or visually pleasing, at the cost of historical accuracy. As a kid, I was always amazed how during the Saturday western matinees, the legendary Colt Peacemaker revolver could fire dozens of times without reloading, something that Samuel Colt never dreamed of, and a function that would make Dr. Richard J. Gatling proud.
While reading the text of history books, a vicarious experience is often created where the reader can only imagine what the event really looked like. In the mid 19th century, photography was in its infancy and considered a magical property. The oldest known photograph still in existence was taken in France in 1826 by Nicéphore Niépce, using a process known as heliography (sun writing), which took eight hours of exposure to record the image. During the following 25 years, photographic technology improved to the point that countless Union and Confederate soldiers were forever immortalized, and worldwide distribution of battle scenes and the aftermath of war became commonplace. The widespread international travels of early photographers has today provided us with contemporary images of days long past. If today's children and college students would just spend a fraction of their online time viewing accurate historical images, rather than keeping up with their friends on Facebook or Tweeting, then maybe they would have a greater appreciation of where we came from and how we got here. Fortunately for us today, the internet makes enormous libraries of authentic images available to all, and many of these images are so profound that just maybe they can fracture the status quo, and develop insight of the past.
The Crimean War (1853-1856) is broadly considered the first major international conflict that was photographed, the most notable Crimean battlefield photographs were taken by Roger Fenton during the spring of 1855. The best known of his photographs show the infamous "Valley of Death" made famous by the "Charge of the Light Brigade". The Library of Congress purchased 263 of the 360 known Fenton Crimean images, and has them available for viewing online at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/ftncnw. In one famous Fenton photograph at the Library of Congress (lcweb2.loc.gov/service/pnp/cph/3g00000/3g09000/3g09200/3g09217v.jpg), the image taken in early 1855 shows the road traversed by the Light Brigade, which is strewn with thousands of spent cannon balls. The sheer volume of cannon balls on the road bears mute testimony to the horrors and carnage through which the "Gallant 600" British cavalry charged Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854. Fenton did not show the traumatic damage that cannon balls do when they strike human flesh; those images would become common just a few years later in the United States.
Fast forward just a few years, and the people and the carnage of the War Between the States were widely photographed by many photographers. Countless photographers took individual portraits of soldiers on both sides, often proudly displaying their personal weapons; thousands of these portraits still exist today in homes, private collections, and museums. Many of these images are available for viewing online. Other photographers, the best known of which is Mathew Brady, took thousands of battlefield photographs, many of which show the grotesque carnage of the freshly killed of both sides, and the horrible wounds of those who did not immediately succumb to their injuries. Mathew Brady alone took over 10,000 such photos, many of which still exist today, many of those are available for viewing online. To many, the images taken by Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner of the mutilated human bodies and bloated horse carcasses from the Battle of Antietam, which were widely presented in shows and printed in the newspapers (often as woodcuts), demonstrated the acute brutality of war. One of my favorite online collections of Civil War photographs is "Original Photographs of the Civil War" online at http://www.mikelynaugh.com/VirtualCivilWar/New/Originals2/index.html. This collection shows landscapes, battle scenes, executions, casualties, embalming, officer portraits, enlisted men's portraits, and other scenes, all of which clearly show a microcosm of the Civil War. Other comprehensive online Civil War collections are available for viewing at the websites of the Library of Congress and the National Park Service, as well as many local historical societies.
The settlement of the American West was documented by photographers, many using much of the same equipment as used in the Civil War. While there are many websites that display old west photographs, many of the more comprehensive collections are at university websites, including Brigham Young University (http://www.lib.byu.edu/dlib/historic_photos) and Washington State University (http://www.wsulibs.wsu.edu/masc/mascphoto.html). Some websites, such as Old-Picture.com have detailed collections of old photos, including Indians, early aircraft, photos from states sorted by state, historical series sorted by date, "American Life" sorted by date, and a variety of other collections.
World Wars I and II were well covered by photographers, with millions of images available online. One of my favorite collections of World War II photos is the Pacific War collection compiled by the Denver Post and online at blogs.denverpost.com/captured/2010/03/18/captured-blog-the-pacific-and-adjacent-theaters. This collection of several dozen images shows the carnage at Pearl Harbor, the battles of the Pacific, the bodies of soldiers killed in action, dramatic images of men in battle, and exciting images of aircraft and ships in action. Brigham Young University has a very personal collection of WWII photos at http://www.lib.byu.edu/dlib/wwiiheslop.
Other city newspapers have compiled extensive collections of images of local interest, many of which have national ramifications. One excellent example of a city newspaper publishing archival photos is the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, which has a large collection of city images online at A href="http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/multimedia/history/index.html">http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/multimedia/history/index.html. Many of the Dispatch images are compiled in about two dozen slideshows sorted by category or event. Some of the categories include sports events through the years, Oktoberfest, state fairs through the years, holidays, sensational crimes, and other groups of images. This is an excellent way for the people of today to visually get a functional grasp of history, and how we got to today.
Today's youth, many of whom had never been exposed to the visual realities of history, should view these images. Some of the images simultaneously display both the bravery and cruelty of man (the Crimean Valley of Death images), the hideous cost in lives of war (Antietam photos), proud moments in history (Columbus Dispatch old football photos), abject horror and suffering (Andersonville prison survivors from the Civil War), innocent civilian carnage (a dead family in a car hit by bomb fragments near Pearl Harbor), and other valuable learning experiences that a person may have by viewing the images and thinking about them.
I would like to encourage all students to spend some of their Facebook and Twitter time viewing these images; maybe then they will garner a better appreciation of history.Click here to return to top