Photographic Evidence

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Last summer, when we published a group of newly uncovered letters by William Tecumseh Sherman, we faced a dilemma as to how to illustrate the cover. We had to choose between a photograph of Sherman that captured his personality superbly but was in poor condition and a recent painting in color based on that photograph. At the last minute, a fine print of the old photograph turned up and we ran with it. Why choose a black-and-white photograph over a colorful painting? Although the communications experts who profess to know what readers like might have chosen the painting, once the good print arrived the contest was over. The reason is that a photograph signals authenticity—and when the subject is news of major historical import, art bows to documentation.

Why this should be so is not simple: photographs have their artifices and conventions too; they can be distorted in the taking and in the presentation; they can have an air of accident or freakishness that makes them unrepresentative of the person or situation. Nevertheless, we all read photographs as the incontrovertible thing, the actual moment of light as it once fell on real people in a real setting. That is certainly our response when we see the earliest photograph of any of our Presidents, the one of John Quincy Adams on page 39. If it existed, wouldn’t even the feeblest photographic image of Washington carry more historical weight for us than a portrait by Gilbert Stuart?

Our consciousness that we live in a modern age begins with photography—a technology that mirrors and stops time. Intimate as the photographic image appears to be, it is also strangely impersonal, like nature itself. The camera eye registers the light falling on the surface of the moon just as coolly as it records the light falling on a beloved child—with no more value expressed about the one than the other.

Although the camera never judges, we humans do—so some records of the past are more important to us, more historical. The significance of such images is the subject of Oliver Jensen’s essay in this issue. Jensen is also concerned with the plight of our photographic heritage. Ever since the Civil War, when photography demonstrated its power to thrust a historical event into the national consciousness, thousands of important photographs have been lost, forgotten, mislaid, or misused. Glass-plate negatives of that era were often sold to gardeners for use in greenhouses; thousands more were used as lenses in World War I gas masks. Even those plates that are stored in archives today are often uncataloged and therefore unusable. This is no way to treat the evidence.

Byron Dobell