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Photo research

Red Cross booth 1918
Red Cross booth at a war-time carnival in Vancouver. Image by James Crookall, circa 1918. Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives (photo 260-1048)

 

Last week I wrote about the use and value of using historical photos for research.

Today I’ll give you a few tips on how to track down historical photos in archives and libraries and some of the challenges of historical photographic research

Keep in mind that the kinds of images you’ll find within any given repository will reflect the mandate of that archive – be it one holding records pertaining to Japanese Canadians or one with a local mandate.  See Archival Research – Where to start.

Because many smaller archives were started by passionate local historians, there are many idiosyncratic cataloguing systems and ways in which photos have been organized. Though there is a move toward standardization, it’s always a good idea to check with the reference archivist about the most efficient way to track down what you’re looking for.

For larger archives there has been a move to digitize many images and make them available for research online through a database over the past two decades.

However budgetary constraints, staff time and expertise, and relative priority of the photos will limit how many photos will be available electronically.  For example in a municipal archive, records that help the current city staff plan and implement programs will take priority over records that are merely of interest to the public, however worthy.

Digitizing photos will often take second place to things like indexing city council minutes, planning documents, engineering records and other records used by city staff  in the course  of carrying out their work.

In smaller, local or cultural archives there’s less chance that photos will be digitized. In many cases, photocopies or reproductions may be available to view  in binders or files in the reference room. In other cases, you may only get a list of photos and have to fill out a request form to view them.

Continually weigh your time and priorities.

Consider the amount of time it takes to research a database, fill  out a request form, wait for the retrieval.  This could take up at least 15 minutes of your time only to result in a 2 second look at something to know it won’t help in your research.

Tracking down photos that are described in list format can be even more time-consuming. And disappointing.

Once you request and receive a picture, you may see, immediately, that it is not what you’re looking for. The image might not be exactly how it was described, or there may be several photos that are very similar – for example a series of interior shots of a lumber mill – and not yield as much information as you had hoped. Or the time period might not be right for your research.

On the other hand it could yield just the right image or information you need.

Keep in mind that some historical images only exist in negative format, some of which are glass and therefore fragile, and that panorama images can be huge and unwieldy. All of these things mean there are times when you may have to make a good case for viewing an original image. And even then your request may be refused.

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A picture – the proverbial 1000 words

Red Cross booth 1918
Red Cross booth at a war-time carnival in Vancouver. Image by James Crookall, circa 1918. Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives (photo 260-1048)

 

As with paintings, a photograph can give so much information about a place and its people and they are well worth the time and effort of tracking down. But stay focused or set a timer for yourself because it’s easy to unintentionally spend a lot of time on this kind of research.

Like many people, I am fascinated by historical images and find that as I work on my novel, set in Vancouver 1885-1913, I return to archival photos, either online or in person, to review scenes that help me re-imagine and hone the details of my story to bring it further to life.

This picture from a WW I era carnival in Vancouver in 1918 is a great example of the kind of detail I love. I can see the fashion of the time, including hats, hair-styles, nurses’ uniforms, street lights. Even the price for admission to some event at this carnival.

It gets me thinking how tenacious people are, trying to carve out a semblance of normalcy during times of war or disruption. There is an inherent seriousness to this carnival scene with the Red Cross as its focus.

So as I let my imagination go with the idea of setting a scene there with all the carnival’s inherent energy and sensations – the smell of popcorn and feel of it getting stuck between your teeth. Or getting sticky fingers from eating candy-floss. Of watching out for horse manure on the ground. And hearing the sound of children squealing as they come over the top of the Ferris wheel. The music and the hucksters.  The coloured lights as darkness falls.

And what was that 10 cent attraction?

A temporary reprieve from the worries of loved ones on the front.

Because there’s a good chance the people in the picture had lost someone close to them, in the Great War, the name given to WW I at the time. Or had a family member on the battle front. Or missing.  The Red Cross stand and its link to the war brings all the frivolity back down to earth and speaks to what’s really on everyone’s mind

You can write an entire scene of a novel, or a play, or a movie – maybe even an entire story based on this one picture.

As a writer or artist of any kind, these are the real-life images that you can hold in your mind’s eye as you ponder your scenes and characters, absorbing historical details and events almost intuitively.

As for the nuts and bolts of doing photo research itself, I’ll come back to that next week.