Blog » What's In a Photograph?

What's In a Photograph? (2/1)

If you missed the series introduction, you can read it here.

Burley tobacco is placed on sticks to wilt after cutting, before it is taken into the brn for drying and curing, on the Russell Spears’ farm, vicinity of Lexington, KY.

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Tobacco is an elemental part of American history. Within five years of the founding of the colony at Jamestown, Virginia, the first white settlers were growing tobacco as a cash crop, and it was the economic foundation for how they survived. George Washington grew and sold tobacco. Or to be more precise, the workers in his fields grew tobacco. And thus it has ever been through the whole winding course of American history: slaves, migrants, poor dirt farmers, small-plot landowners, and others have worked the fields to grow this plant and turn it into money. This picture depicts a sight you can see anywhere tobacco is grown: tobacco farmers and workers taking advantage of any available ground — a small patch adjacent to a healthy stand of corn, as is shown here, or untillable land on an awkward rocky slope — and working it to yield this sturdy, reliable cash crop. Here, you see the oversized, beautiful, fragrant tobacco leaves, so full of the promise of cash. And so full of illness.


What's In a Photograph? (1/26)

If you missed the series introduction, you can read it here.

Bill Stagg, homesteader, in front of his barn, Pie Town, New Mexico.

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Look at this picture – look at it quickly, without reading anything – and then guess the year it was taken. You could guess any year in the last hundred or so, and (allowing for colorization) you’d have an equal chance of being right. And the same is true of the place – take away the mountains in the far distance, and this could be almost anywhere. Since the year the first wood-sided barn was built, all over the country, barns have been slumping and sliding into the landscape, nearly but never quite falling down. And the owners have been standing outside them, horses in hand, proud as can be. This is my land; these are my horses; this is my barn.


What's In a Photograph? (1/20)

If you missed the series introduction, you can read it here.

A cross roads store, bar, “juke joint,” and gas station in the cotton plantation area, Melrose, LA., ca. 1940.

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

To paraphrase a line I read not long ago about pictures, they capture a moment but can contain a world. A Juke Joint at a cross-roads in Louisiana about 1940. A place of refuge and rejuvenation. And who could have known that such places would also give birth to a musical genre that all artists all over the world consider to be the musical staff of life, as basic and necessary as breathing. “Hey Mr. Johnson, play me some Blues.” And who is that guy sitting there with shoulders so weighted down that we can almost feel it ourselves? We can’t see his face but we can see he’s big and we somehow know he’s pretty old. We’d like to know more about him and that place. They say if you look at a picture long enough it will give you the answers to the questions you ask. Let’s look at it some more.


What's In a Photograph? (1/11)

Welcome back to our new weekly blog series called “What’s In a Photograph?”
If you missed last week’s series introduction, you can read it here.

Orchestra during intermission at square dance; notice sweated shirt of host, McIntosh County, Oklahoma, ca. 1940.

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

If you’ve ever been to a country square dance, you know that all you need to get folks dancing is a guitar and a fiddle, so it’s not a misnomer to label this pair an “orchestra”. If they know how to play – my money is betting they do, judging from the guitarist’s hat, and the way the fiddler is holding his bow – these two could swing the room into a frenzy. If you doubt the point, then, as the caption suggests, check out the sweat-soaked shirt of the guy to the right. He’s been feeling it! Maybe, as the caption says, he’s the host. Or he might be a dancer who’s jotting down the phone number of someone sweet he just danced with. Cant’ you just hear the caller: “Swing your partner, do-si-do, promenade and let her go.”


What's In a Photograph?

The famous Berenice Abbott once said, “Photography helps people to see.” 

There’s much to say about that quote, but we’d like to focus on how historical photographs actually allow us to see the past. As time goes on, our memories easily become dependent on the photographs we take – and without them, those memories can easily fade away. But what do we think about photographs that aren’t directly connected to our memories? What purpose do they serve and what do they allow us to see? What understanding is to be gained from seeing life as it was before our time? In an attempt to answer those questions, we’d like to introduce you to our newest blog series, called “What’s In a Photograph?”

Every week, we plan to display a historic photograph on our blog along with some words on what we’ve observed or learned from the picture. We’re not really sure where these thoughts will lead, but we can be certain that these photos will help us see things that we would otherwise have a hard time seeing.

We invite you join us in sharing what you see in the comment box below. We look forward to discussing these photographs with you!  

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.