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Southward, Ho! Ellen Garrison Unlocking Photographs In 1450 Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized the transmission of information, and schoolchildren still honor him as the inventor of the printing press. Nearly four hundred years later, Nicéphore Niepce touched off a similar revolution when he placed a camera in his attic window and created an image of his courtyard. Few know his name. Although photographs furnish compelling documentation of life from the second half of the nineteenth century forward, few scholars have recognized the potential of photographic documentation. Fewer still have developed the skills to use photographs effectively. Too often, they have viewed photographs as fluff—used, if at all, to illustrate textual research. Editors tend to select pictures to meet the requirements of page layout. Archivists sometimes regard photographs as mere ephemera, relegated to the last box of the collection, undescribed and unindexed. Researchers, therefore, must develop what Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler calls "visual literacy."1 A 1984 survey by the Appalachian Consortium of archives in the southern mountains revealed the richness of the photographic record.2 More collections held photographs than any other single type of documentation. Of the 181 repositories reporting, 138—76 percent—included photographs. As expected, most of these collections were in public libraries (38), colleges and universities (28), historical societies (25), and historic sites and museums (23). Visual treasures also turned up at 8 national parks and national forests; 7 churches, settlement houses, and denominational archives; 3 medical centers; the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia; and the Coweeta Hydrologie Laboratory in Otto, North Carolina. The diversity of the collections was remarkable. At the Archives of Appalachia of East Tennessee State University, researchers could reasonably have expected to find the photographs by Kenneth Murray, an award-winning professional East Tennessee photographer , and those of the Elizabethton Star, a local newspaper. These pictures document many facets of life in upper East Tennessee. The records of the Clinchfield Railroad proved equally rich, with pictures of the construction of the railroad, the region through which it passed, the communities it served, and public events the company supported, such as the "Santa Claus Special," which brought Christmas to children in isolated communities from 1967 to 1975. Visual literacy begins with understanding the factors that intervene between the viewer and the subject of a photograph. Photography not only recorded social revolution but was a part of it. Pictures allowed members of the new middle class to preserve their images, a privilege previously reserved for those wealthy enough to pay portrait painters. 130Southern Cultures Postcards depicting a school band. Social context and other information can be gathered by visual clues Tennessee. When visiting a photographer, this new class presented itself as it wanted to be seen, and these early portraits represent the apogee of middle-class style and values. Later, snapshots, and even documentary photographs, were influenced by choices that the subjects made about their own presentation. Choices made by the photographer also interpret the event and scene being documented . By the very act of taking a picture, the photographer endows the subject with importance; decisions about composition, point of view, and the type of equipment and film determine how that subject is presented. We see the subjects not only as they themselves want to be seen but as the photographer wants us to see them. As viewers, we draw on our personal history, scholarly interests, previous experience with photographs, and stock of ancillary information to interpret an image. This point is illustrated by a photograph of a turn-of-the-century picnic that was added to the collections of the Center for Popular Music by an ethnomusicologist, whose interest was prompted by the musical instruments held by the men in the lower right of the picture. Another staff member, with academic training in southern social history, immediately noticed fighting cocks being held by several other subjects. A third viewer focused on the flag and wondered whether it would be possible to date the picture by counting the number of stars on the flag. As these interpretations demonstrate, photographs provide information far beyond what the photographer intended to record. A collection of postcards recently acquired by the Center for Popular Music reinforces this point. Like...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 129-130
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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