Photographically Displaying the Past

"In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality."

- Alfred Stieglitz


Photographs as documentary evidence of change.

The dozen photographs on this page reveal an historical imagery of a world in our hands:


Hiroshima at 8:19 AM on the morning of the atomic bombing August 3, 1945. Hiroshima Peace Museum, [JVS, 2008.]


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Take time to thoroughly view a photograph and distinguish the frame, the background from the foreground, the focus of the documentary evidence, and the intent of the photographer or painter given the subject in both its particulars and its entirety.

MArket Square MArket Square
  Notice the scale of the pre-automotive streets




Urban decayRiis

Jacob Riis, a Scandinavian immigrant depicted urban conditions of New York's working class in the 1880s & 1890s.

1. Urban poverty.

Steiglitz New York City in WinterTerminal 1893

2. Alfred Stieglitz, New York City in Winter, 1893.

"I am not a painter, nor an artist. Therefore I can see straight, and that may be my undoing." Alfred Stieglitz.

"The arts equally have distinct departments, and unless photography has its own possibilities of expression, separate from those of the other arts, it is merely a process, not an art; but granted that it is an art, reliance should be placed unreservedly upon those possibilities, that they may be made to yield the fullest results.
Alfred Stieglitz

San Francisco EarthquakeSan Francisco Earthquake

The San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906; the view down California Street eastwards to the bay.

3. Viewing the devastation.


Some photographs are world famous:

Migrant Mother. Dorothea Lange, 1936.

Falling Man, Sept. 11, 2001.


Photographs are documentary evidence of changes over time.

grassland changes

4. The changes in scenes across the nation can be seen in photographs of any city's landscape. The city scape underwent changes due to the scientific-industrial revolution.

Documenting changes in time.

Photographs and paintings are indispensable as documentary evidence of human impacts on terrains


Collections of paintings and photographs:

The Newberry Library

The Library of Congress

The National Archives

The New York Public Library, NYPL.

Boston Public Library


SPECIAL Viewings:

Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography

Public Eye, the first-ever retrospective survey of photography organized by NYPL, takes advantage of this moment to reframe the way we look at photographs from the past. What are some of the platforms and networks through which photographs have been shared?
In what ways have we, as photography’s public and one of its subjects, been engaged over time?
To what ends has the street served as a venue for photographic practice since its beginnings?

Photographs replaced painting as a source of documentary evidence, but paintings still reveal the characteristics of the past which would be lost to us – had not the artist chanced to paint, sketch, or draw the views we regard today as evidence of what is worth preserving in our natural and cultural heritage.

What is an example of a good description?

The visual archive showing the first photograph.

Creating a narrative out of remnant paintings and photographs to convey the significance of past events.

Eel Spearing at Setauket, 1845
William Sidney Mount (American, 1807-1868)

eel spearing
William Sidney Mount (American, 1807-1868). Eel Spearing at Setauket, 1845. Oil on canvas. 28 1/2 x 36 in. (72.4 x 91.4 cm). (N-395.55). Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York.
© Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York

In over 100 works, American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 illustrates the constantly changing ways in which inhabitants of what would become the United States of America viewed themselves from the decade before the Revolutionary War to just before World War I.

Along the way, it also tells the story of how the role of American artist shifted from humbly-paid craftsman to highly-valued professional. The exhibition is arranged chronologically into four themes:

          • "Inventing American Stories, 1765-1830,"

          • "Stories for the Public, 1830-1860,"

          • "Stories of War and Reconciliation, 1860-1877" and

          • "Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories, 1877-1915."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: October 12, 2009-January 24, 2010
Los Angeles County Museum of Art: February 28-May 23, 2010

Selected photographers to use

Jacob Riis

Alfred Stieglitz

Carl Van Vechten

Minor White

Dorothea Lange

James Agee

Ansel Adams

Tyler Hicks

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Images of American Landscape Scenery | Landscape Art | American Landscape Artists