Overlooking the Obvious: Visual History

Old photographs tell a bigger story, but we must remember to continue collecting our visual history

Leslie C. McDaniel

Leslie C. McDaniel

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In the community where I live, a book capturing the town's visual history is being published. Local residents have been invited to submit old photographs of businesses, churches, schools, parks and the like. Old, old photographs showing a rural Kansas town in the early years of the century have flooded in. What's been much slower in coming are the photographs showing the town in the sixties and seventies.

Granted, the town was hardly at its aesthetic peak in that period. In a plague of sixties modernization, vintage storefronts gave way to plate glass and false fronts. What architectural charm survived that scourge was nearly eradicated during the energy crisis of the seventies, when storefronts and second-story windows underwent further assault.

Still, warts and all, that was reality. But capturing that reality is proving to be a challenge.

These days, who would think to take a photo of a commercial building, a church, a school? A hundred years ago, when a building – any building – went up, it was news. Today, we yawn. Seventy-five years ago, when the town square was packed with people in town for Election Day, people got out their cameras and captured the moment. Study the photo closely, and you learn countless details about life decades ago.

Collectors today pore over aging photos and postcards, examining the ways in which equipment was once used and outfitted. Such documents are important part of the research that's necessary in restoration. But if somebody 60 or 70 or even 80 years ago hadn't thought that a particular tractor or thresher or engine was important enough to photograph, that information would be vastly more difficult – if not downright impossible – to obtain.

And change occurs much, much more steadily than we realize. In the visual world, we take much for granted. Often, we see without seeing; other times, we are simply too busy to stop and look. Bringing home a new treasure, for instance. How many of you have hauled home a great old engine or a classic tractor and torn it apart before it occurred to you to take a photo?

Collectors pour so much time and energy and effort into preserving the past. We just need to bear in mind that even the recent past deserves some of that effort as well. FC