Sunday, October 24, 2010

Learning through Looking

A blog post by Rachel Kassman, photo archivist.

This past Monday I had the good fortune to attend a discussion panel at the University of Maryland Baltimore County Library. This panel was held in conjunction with a meeting of the Maryland History and Culture Collaborative (a group I am a part of, though this was my first real meeting!) and in honor of American Archives Month. Presenters Barbara Orbach Natanson, Tom Beck, Doug McElrath and Joanne Archer spoke on "Using Images for Original Research." You can see why I, the JMM photo archivist, was interested!

Barbara Orback Natanson, of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division spoke first, focusing on visual literacy. She pointed out that while many people use images to illustrate their research after the fact, many don't realize that images themselves provide a great deal of information useful throughout the research process. Images provide a record of the environment, showing both continuity and change. They also "document what is hard to describe: and things that people "don't think to say." Images are an especially great source for discovering more research questions.

Click here to browse images from the JMM's collection!

Tom Beck, chief curator at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery at UMBC used the photography of Lewis Hine as a case study for images giving us "direct contact with the past." Showing Hine's photography of child labor in agricultural Maryland, he discussed how a photographer can make specific statements with his/her work and how different photographers were tapped for certain projects based on those statements.

Click here to see images from Bachrach, a well represented photographer and studio in the JMM's collections!

Doug McElrath, curator at the University of Maryland Special Collections library, spoke about the use of postcards for research. In his words, postcards are the "Rodney Dangerfield of visual research - they get no respect!" Although he also pointed out that the Metropolitan Museum of Art did have a recent postcard exhibit, so maybe the postcard's humble reputation is turning around. It is estimated that the years around 1910 saw over a billion postcards mailed in the United States. Postcards were used as communication devices - although early postcards were especially limited in the space available for writing, prompting Doug to declare them the "tweets of 1900!" But they also served as souvenirs and collectibles. Doug also discussed the importance of remembering that postcards are a highly manipulated product - "distractions" have often been removed, colors modified, even people erased from view.

Click here to see some of the postcards in the JMM's collection! Also, did you know deltiology is the study of postcards?

Joanne Archer, collections curator at the UMD Special Collections library, continued the postcard theme. She focused on the postcard as a provider of research questions, showing examples of postcards and the types of questions they might raise, such as gender relations of the time period, or exploring the 20th century idea of the exotic. She also spoke about the "anatomy" of a postcard and that the Golden Age of the postcard coincided with the rise of travel seen between 1900 and 1920. Joanne and Doug also mentioned that they have just opened an exhibit on travel and postcards at the Hornbake Library Gallery, Greetings from Vacationland.

Click here to read a little about the JMM's own past exhibit on vacations!

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