50 Important Historical Photos That Might Change Your Perspective On Things (New Pics)
In the mid-2000s, historian Anna Pegler-Gordon said that visual media often seems more accessible to her students than the written record. They claimed images make the past seem more accessible, giving concrete shape to a world that sometimes seems intangible. Not to mention the immediacy of the image, which often conveys information more quickly than a primary document written in an unfamiliar, or even a foreign, language. But according to Pegler-Gordon, this immediacy also works well in discussion sections, where the shared experience of viewing a picture can provide a focus for lively group discussion.
Now, 15 years after the professor said these words, we can say that her insights were spot on. Take this subreddit, for example. It unites over 3 million people, and they're all exploring the past through historical photographs. The rarely seen images coupled with the detailed fashion in which the community shares them with one another (every upload includes an accurate description of what is being presented (event, location, war, year, etc.) not only provides a look into our earlier days, but also inspires interesting discussions in the comment section.
We at Bored Panda have already covered the subreddit here and here, but it has received plenty of new submissions since our last publication, so we thought it's about time we made another one. Continue scrolling to check out some of its recent posts and the conversation we had with historians Joshua Wilkey and Darren R. Reid.
Cop Stops The Traffic In New York So A Mother Cat Holding A Kitten Can Cross Safely C.1925
Remember That Photo Of The Construction Workers Having Lunch On The Unfinished Empire State Building? Well Here's The Photographer Charles Ebbets Taking That Photo. 9/20/1932
"I think photography can be an essential and powerful tool for understanding history, but I think it is also necessary to view all photographs with a critical eye," professor, writer, and amateur homesteader Joshua Wilkey told Bored Panda. "While we might be accustomed to skepticism of photos in the age of Photoshop, photo editing isn't the only thing that should give us pause."
Dr. Darren R. Reid, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Dundee and is now a lecturer at Coventry University, agrees. He explained to us that images are an incredibly important part of how we understand the past. "They give us a distinct look into how people and societies viewed themselves and each other," Reid said.
"In the medieval period, for example, Jesus and the saints were often depicted as physically larger than ordinary people — not because they were believed to be taller, but because they occupied a higher status in the minds of the artists who produced these images, and the audiences who consumed them. In later centuries, Europeans (and their descendants) looked to the classical world for inspiration, spending huge amounts of time (and money) on images that were both increasingly realistic and idealized."
"Native Americans and American colonizers were frequently depicted in classical poses — all deliberate choices that show us how many people perceived the invasion of the Americas and the genocides that occurred there," Reid continued. "They also include important details (such as items of clothing, hairstyles, etc.) that help us to picture the past. For modern people, this means we can more accurately imagine, and perhaps, empathize with the very different folks who came before us."
Rail Commuters Wearing White Protective Masks, One With The Additional Message “Wear A Mask Or Go To Jail,” During The 1918 Influenza Pandemic In California
Stoney First Nation Member, Guide Samson Beaver With His Wife Leah And Their Daughter Frances Louise, 1907. Photo Taken By Mary Schäffer
Mogadishu, 1993. An Italian Soldier Gives Food To A Local Orphan
Talking about photographs, in particular, Joshua Wilkey provided a few very helpful questions we can ask ourselves when analyzing them:
Is the photo lacking context? Or what is happening outside of the frame? "There's always the chance that the viewer is seeing an intentionally skewed perspective," Wilkey highlighted. "A picture might be worth a thousand words, but sometimes it takes a thousand words to explain the context of a single photo. Some pictures are downright strange without context."
Is the photo representative? In other words, can the photo indicate something bigger than itself? "For example, the internet has, for years, made fun of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un for marveling at seemingly cool but likely fake things like modern and well-stocked grocery stores. These photos are meant to be representative images portraying for Kim's people and for foreigners that North Korea is a modern and well-nourished society. The reality is a bit different."
Atelier Photo: "A Lesbian Couple In Semi Drag Wedding Attire"; Kingdom Of Hungary - Budapest, 1920
A Beach In Iran A Few Months Before The Islamic Revolution, 1979
As the historian said, these concepts can apply to virtually any photograph, but they become crucial when we're viewing a particular one as evidence. "They are important for historical photographs because of the power and usefulness of photography in political propaganda. North Korea is a great example of a regime that uses photography for propaganda, and the Soviet Union and the US were great examples too, particularly during the Cold War and the Space Race."
"Another good example of government using photography to achieve a political end was the Farm Service Administration's use of photography to document the impact of the Great Depression as a means of garnering support for the New Deal," Wilkey added. "Roosevelt's opponents argued it was political propaganda, while his proponents argued it was an accurate depiction of what was happening. Ultimately, most scholars have concluded that, while it accomplished political ends, it was indeed an accurate portrayal of reality."
A Man Browses For Books In The Old Public Library Of Cincinnati. The Building Was Demolished In 1955. Today An Office Building And A Parking Lot Stand Where It Used To Be
It’s No Longer Possible To See This, As Buildings Outside Block The Sun. Grand Central, NYC, 1929 Photo By Louis Faurer
One more case that Wilkey mentioned to illustrate his point is Jacob Riis’s 1890 photojournalism work titled 'How the Other Half Lives,' which offered shocking views of tenement housing in New York City.
"Riis's work was accused of being 'muckraking' (activist journalism), but it led to reforms on tenement laws and rights and helped shepherd some of the first public health laws in the US," the historian said.
"Using photos from Riis’s work, one can apply both of the principles above: consider what is happening outside the frame of the camera, and consider whether the photos are representative. In the case of most of Riis’s photos of terrible living conditions, what was outside the frame of his camera was much the same as what was inside the frame, and his photographed subjects were representative of their entire communities. For me, they pass both my tests and should be treated as important historical sources."
A French Boy Introduces Himself To Indian Soldiers Who Had Just Arrived In France To Fight Alongside French And British Forces, Marseilles, 30th September 1914. [colorization]
West German School Children Pause To Talk With Two East German Border Guards Beside An Opening In The Berlin Wall During The Collapse Of Communism In East Germany In November 1989 (Photo: Stephen Jaffe)
However, Darren R. Reid pointed out that not only politicians and governments contribute to bending the narrative, and suggested taking a closer look at the art produced by the people.
"The invasion of the Americas was frequently sanctioned and/or driven by governments, but it was the acts of 'ordinary' people that made it possible, and across that continent, a huge body of work was produced to justify, even encourage, some really terrible acts," he said. "American comic books and movies depicted Native Americans as simple, brutish, and savage. This helped to justify genocide and colonization as it was ongoing — and justify it, long after the most violent part of the process was complete. For a great example, check out the awful depiction of Native Americans in Disney’s Peter Pan. They helped to justify the colonial project to generations of children, right up to the present day."
As Sue Walsh, the creative director at SYPartners, wonderfully put it, the way we perceive the world is more fluid than the binaries of fact and fiction. Especially now that we live in what some call a post-truth era. So keep not only an open eye, but a sharp mind as well if you want to navigate it.