- Historic Sites
Windows On Another Time
A man who has spent his life helping transform old photos from agreeable curiosities into a vital historical tool explains their magical power to bring the past into the present
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
When you study the picture at the right, which I confess affects me as strongly as other daguerreotypes did the future Mrs. Robert Browning, you will find yourself meeting the steady gaze of a man born in 1767. He is, of course, John Quincy Adams, and when the picture was taken, in 1843, he was a congressman from Massachusetts, actively engaged in that long battle over slavery which ended in the Civil War. It was fourteen years since he had left the White House, but he had lived long enough to become the earliest of our Presidents to be photographed; he would have a fatal stroke in 1848 on the floor of the House of Representatives. Look into those intense eyes again and think what they had seen: the courts of Europe as a diplomat; the early White House in his father’s day; the corridors of power as a senator and a Secretary of State. They had beheld Washington and other Old Romans of the early Republic; they had awed young college boys when he was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, stared down haughty British representatives during the peace negotiations after the War of 1812, faced off with angry Southerners in the House.
The more you know, the more you see in an old picture. And the picture itself will help you. The books behind him are appropriate props for a man who knew Greek, Latin, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and German, who read most mornings from six to nine and wrote hortatory poems in the evenings. That Adams has shriveled a bit with age is sadly evident in the coat now too large and the wrinkled sleeve too long. About the handkerchief on his knee I can only speculate, but it is not obligatory or even necessary to identify everything you see when throwing open a window on another time.
Looking into such windows has always had a special magic for me, from the day I first discovered that there was a past beyond yesterday and that the towheaded youth framed on a wall upstairs and my bald grandfather were one and the same person. Any busy picture, especially if it is big or much enlarged—a street, an event, a roomful of people—is especially compelling for its incidentals, for the detail that a magnifying glass brings out: antique faces, bustles, beards of all cuts and varieties (the most recent wave of beard wearing was quite unimaginative by comparison), even the pictures that this much earlier generation hung on its own walls. Here, for instance, is a forest of masts and spars by the docks, there avenues filled with carriages and wagons, and streetcars in swarms. And everywhere are ladies’ hats, towering or swooping. No man goes outdoors without a hat, and most of them are derbies in winter, boaters in summer. Small pictures are all very well for portraits, but it is the big ones that bring out all that clutter of real life that gets lumped together by professors under the dignified title of “social history.” The academics, however, used to keep such photographs out of their textbooks lest, I sometimes suspect, the subject be made too easy or seem too interesting.
This kind of history, the story of the everyday world, has been the main subject matter of photographers ever since Louis Daguerre fixed his first permanent image on a silvercoated copperplate in 1837. He did not “go public” until 1839, but a few visitors got to see that first photograph, which showed a small corner of the artist’s studio. Carefully they looked back and forth between the image and the corner of the room itself, assuring themselves that everything was the same. That was the miracle of it, the “very shadow” of reality. That is what grips me in the wonderful photograph shown here of Niagara Falls, taken by someone from the Detroit Photographic Company in 1908. Sentimental? Yes, but so was the age, albeit redeemed by a sense of humor. Read its novels, listen to its music, look at its popular art (Charles Dana Gibson’s, for example). It is eighty years ago, but the two lovestruck couples, all done up in their best honeymoon clothes, speechless before all that water and noise, are forever alone at last.
What follows are a few thoughts on the role of photographs in history, to show how they can add details, and understanding, even atmosphere in its presentation. There is no question among historians, for example, how Abraham Lincoln felt about his arrogant but failed general George B. McClellan or the fact that he got rid of him soon after the photograph on page 45 was taken, but it is revealing nonetheless to look upon the ill-concealed distaste of the towering President and the surly stance of the Napoleonic little general confronting him. That there could have been no love lost, nor even any mutual respect between Presidents Wilson and Harding, would surprise no one, yet could that fact be exhibited any better than in the dour, unfriendly scene shown on page 45 as they made the obligatory open ride to Harding’s inauguration in 1921.