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Picture History

June 2024
3min read

If you’ll turn to the portfolio of Mexican War daguerreotypes that accompanies our story on the San Patricios in this issue, you will find in the picture credits a spate of curatorial jabber. Indeed, there’s something almost amusing in the idea of these battered workaday views of a long-ago campaign being filigreed with the sort of explication one might better expect to accompany Leonardo da Vinci’s cartoon for The Virgin of the Rocks . But it did not amuse me a couple of months back when I learned we had to print all that or the Amon Carter Museum wouldn’t let us publish the pictures. I grumbled about the pedantic rigor of the stipulation until it occurred to me that perhaps American Heritage had been partially responsible for it.

Fifty years ago photographs just weren’t as important as they are now—at least, not as history. Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans, Steichen and Stieglitz, and scores of others had done much to push the photograph across the boundaries that delimit art, but historians still tended to view them as gingerbread on the solid structure of the prose that defined their calling.

There were illustrated histories, of course. In 1911 Francis Trevelyan Miller brought out his ten-volume Photographic History of the Civil War (although it may be indicative of the regard in which photos were held that after the book was off press, the publishers evidently simply tossed away the hundreds of pictures they had gathered). A quarter-century after that, Laurence Stallings published The First World War: A Photographic History ; but that was more a grimly ironic essay than a history. Even the title was ironic, since there had been only one world war at the time; and the pictures—chosen and assembled largely for the mood they impart—make up what Stallings calls “the camera record of chaos, with the reader annoyed by only the briefest captions.” A sunken road full of German corpses, for instance, bears the sole legend “Tactical Blunder.” And there was the Columbia Historical Portrait of New York , the result of an imaginative project to commemorate Columbia University’s 200th anniversary. Rather than merely putting out a book about the college, Columbia decided instead on a picture history of the city in which it grew. John Kouwenhoven married pictures and text with a revelatory fluency that has not been surpassed to this day.

Kouwenhoven’s book came out in 1953; in December of the next year, the first issue of American Heritage reached its subscribers. It had been put together by people who took pictures seriously. The three founders—James Parton, Joseph Thorndike, and Oliver Jensen—came from a magazine that had made itself a towering success through the use of pictures, and now they intended to apply the techniques they had learned at Life to history six times a year, year in and year out.

Today, forty-one years later, it would be a brave historian indeed who dismissed the high significance of the visual. People study “images” as sedulously as they study any other historical documents, and although it would be reckless to say that this magazine was wholly responsible for the change, I believe it would be more reckless to assume it would have happened if American Heritage hadn’t been there.

It was not merely a matter of publishing pictures with articles. The editors set up a dialogue with those pictures, and interpreted them for the readers in a voice at once authoritative and relaxed. The magazine’s influence seeped through the historical community for years, but if you want a more immediate and direct example of cause and effect, consider American Heritage’s book American Album . This was a very handsome volume of photographs that covered the time from the late 183Os, when the camera first began to survey America, to World War I, when we were a grown-up nation full of amateur picture-takers. The photographs were reproduced big, in black and white, of course, but with the richly elaborate printing techniques usually associated with color. Album came out in 1968. In a year it had a dozen imitators; by the end of the 1970s, hundreds.

Even the relatively brief captions in our section of Mexican War photographs testify to the fact that Oliver Jensen is still as deft and knowledgable a translator of pictures as he was in American Album —and as he was in the earliest days of this magazine. I remember, not long after I got here, seeing him examine a daguerreotype that seemed as opaque and distant to me as any anonymous century-old portrait, and saying familiarly of its stone-faced subject, “First exposure of the sitting for this fellow.”

“How can you know that?” I ventured.

He put a forefinger to a spot just above the man’s ear. “His hair is still pressed down around where his hat was. Even with all that Macassar oil it would have sprung back to normal in ten minutes or so. He’s just gotten to the studio.”

With such close reading of clues, such seemingly easy habitation in another era, did American Heritage in its early years elevate pictures from decoration to fact.

Richard F. Snow

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