Photos - Fine Arts Commission, Series G record example

Photos - Fine Arts Commission, Series G

Records: 6,862 · Complete: 100%

Historical photos featured on Fold3

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.

Titles within the historical photograph collection

Mathew B. Brady and the Civil War

Mathew Brady and a team of photographers sought to photographically capture an essence of the Civil War. A staggering 5,600 pictures present viewers with a sense of the war and its aftermath. Gazing at these images creates a historical context in which to view our ancestors who lived in the same time period. For example, clothing and settings let us see individuals in terms of the past, while photographs of Fort Johnson in South Carolina offer insights into the written descriptions, left by men of their battlefield experiences, by showing us the actual scene. During the Civil War, photography was only a couple decades old and images largely consisted of family portraits. Brady became famous because his images documented the war, represented the reality of the conflict, and brought it into American parlors.

(More about the Mathew B. Brady Collection of Civil War Photographs may be found here.)

Presidential photographs

Collections of images generated to document a politician’s life and his term of office show us much about the men who directed the paths of our ancestors’ lives. In this picture of Vice President Calvin Coolidge at the 1922 Dedication of Grant’s Memorial in Washington, DC, he sits off to the left, as one of the spectators in an audience of local and national dignitaries. President Woodrow Wilson is at the podium, either getting settled before giving his speech or gathering his belongings to leave the stage. Below them in the audience, a news photographer lifts his camera over the heads of the crowd to snap a shot of those who attended the event. Perhaps your ancestor was on the stage with Coolidge or in the group watching the ceremony. Snapshots taken during a president’s administration let us peek into the lives and activities of those notable men. The photographs of their political lives as world leaders document historically significant periods of American history.

Adjust the image

Fold3’s handy and simple to use image-enhancement tool allows users to improve the brightness and contrast of a digital image. Look for the sun in the toolbar above an image and click it. Even if you’ve never edited a photo before, you’ll quickly be able to use it. Slide one of the bars up and down and watch how the image (picture or document) changes. Then try the other bar. I tried it on a photograph of the Honorable James Nye (B2879) in the Brady Collection. The picture seems clearer when you slightly increase the contrast and decrease the brightness. Try it yourself and see! Check the invert box to reverse a document from positive to negative. This often increases readability.

Using the photo collections

Search within the historical photo collections by a specific ancestor’s name. It may be listed in the caption or annotated by a Fold3 member. You may discover previously unknown images of your family. Browse the collection by time period to gain a sense of the world events through which your ancestors lived.

Recognizing one of your ancestors in an image is an opportunity for you to interact with the past by telling the story of their lives in a Fold3 Memorial. Attaching the Memorial to the digital image broadens the depth and breadth of the history embodied in a single picture, making it worth more than a thousand words.

About the contributor

In 2008, the Wall Street Journal called Maureen Taylor “the nation’s foremost historical photo detective." She is an internationally-recognized photo identification and family history expert. The author of a number of books and magazine articles, she offers a range of dynamic, interactive seminars on photographs, genealogy, and history. Maureen has been featured in Hallmark Television, The View, Better Homes & Gardens, the Boston Globe, Martha Stewart Living, MSNBC, PBS Ancestors, and more. (Photo: Erik Jacobs Photography)