by Maureen Taylor
A popular proverb proclaims that a single picture is worth a thousand words, but can you imagine the worth of the stories in a picture collection? Immeasurable. The value of an image extends beyond its ability to generate word count. As social history documents, photographs let us peek into the past whether they were taken a few minutes ago or decades earlier. Each is a freeze frame of a historical moment in all its complex aspects, from family history to political events.
For instance, in this photograph of Clark Gable as an Air Force officer, there are several levels of meaning. It’s just one photo in a collection that documents the activities of the United States Air Force during World War II. The photographer wasn’t capturing an image of a Hollywood personality, but of Gable as an ordinary member of a flight crew. His fame was lost in the greater story being told—not of a man, but of a crew and its mission. Yet, within this photographic moment there is an element of family history. Each of those men—Gable included—had relatives hoping for their safe return. The names of the individual men have been added to this public picture adding depth to the historical meaning of the photo.