I can’t tell you enough how much I love looking at old paintings and photos of a place, not only for the artistic pleasure they give but, from a historical research perspective, for the detail they convey.
Take this painting of the early Vancouver waterfront by Edward Roper, for example. It shows people working – from what I can tell possibly some Squamish people hauling boats onshore, a couple of Chinese men, and others at the waterfront. It gives me a strong image from that very time, from the perspective of an astute observer.
And even thought the complete image is undoubtedly contrived, there is a lot here to feed my imagination and fuel the creative process for the novel I’m writing set in Vancouver beginning in the 1880s.
Whereas many photos of the times are of people of prominence or group shots of factory workers or picnic groups, there is a lot of historical artwork that shows everyday people doing ordinary, everyday things.
Clothing, attitude, work being carried out, tools, scenery, and more can be conveyed in a single painting that could take a long time to discern through written records or be difficult to set up in a photograph.
Yet, along with historical photos, they are a rich resource for any creative or documentary research you may want to do. They are further different from photos, however, in that an artist can add in details that might not be present or apparent from a photo.
Check your local archival repositories, art galleries, and museums for any local historical paintings they might have in their collection. Even though, in some cases, the artwork itself may not be very good, drawings and paintings will give you a “snapshot” impression of a place that may be just enough for you to imagine your own creative work emanating from it.