Thursday, February 11, 2021

Sources: Photographs

Photography has been around for as long as California has been a U.S. state. The first commercial photographs arrived in 1839 under the guidance of Louis Daguerre, and the processes quickly evolved into more streamlined, reproducible, and higher quality images. By the time the first railroad infrastructure was built in Santa Cruz County in 1874, photography had gone mainstream and several studios had popped up throughout the county. While fairly stationary photograph was still required into the 1890s, the shutter speeds had increased enough that scenes depicting action were not out of the question. Thus, photographs of the age of railroads in Santa Cruz County can be quite helpful in answering research questions, investigating mysteries, and generally giving historians a better idea of the world people lived in at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Felton Covered Bridge and approach with the Old Felton spur in the center, ca 1930, overlaid onto a modern photograph taken at the same location. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections, and Google Street View]

The historical community has always had a mixed relationship with photographs. They are absolutely essential tools for research but their flaws sometimes far outweigh their benefits. But one thing that photographs, especially candid photos, can show is history as it once was. Time machines do not exist, at least not yet, so there is no way to actually go back to see the past today. Historical documents and newspapers can paint a picture of how things were, but they leave much unsaid. Similarly, artifacts can be helpful in showing construction techniques and how things were done, but they often are accompanied with much speculation. Photographs, therefore, are unique in showing a specific snapshot in time. And these snapshots do not just show what the photographer wants the viewer to see, but also everything around it and things outside their control. Despite an eternal uncertainty regarding the viability of using photographs in historical research, they are undeniably a tool that every historian of the Modern era must consider in their research. 

Ways of using this source:

Illustrative Photographs

The primary reason historians and any researcher uses photographs in their work is to highlight or emphasize a point. For example, you are writing a biography of Frederick A. Hihn, so you include a photograph or lithograph (a reproduction of a photograph on a plate so it can be used in a printing press) of him at the side of the page. Often, this type of use isn't even accompanied with a photo caption because it is so straightforward. Illustrative photographs are important for historians to include to better immerse readers and it also makes books more saleable since people always like photographs. Many local history books these days, namely Arcadia Publishing's various offerings, are almost entirely composed of illustrative photographs with the captions telling the history in snippets—an inversion of the traditional way of using photographs in historical works.

Watsonville Depot from Beach Road, ca 1895. Note the multiple sidings, the wagon train at right, and the smokestacks of the Western Beet Sugar Company in the distance at left. [Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]

Comparative Photographs

Another relatively straightforward means of illustrating a point is to use two photographs that show substantially the same scene but set years apart. Again, this usage is often accompanied with little more than the dates of the two photographs and maybe a description of some key changes. But this is where it begins to veer into historical analysis territory. Where a single photograph can only reveal what is in it, two photographs of the same thing can be used to demonstrate changes. This can be very important, as well, if you are trying to date when a change happened and you have access to two photographs set only a few years apart that depict said change. Comparison photographs can also be used to show how industries or locations have changed from one type to another, such as the shift at a business from using freight trains to truck, or of a place from a bustling town to a rural community. Arcadia Publishing has also begun capitalizing on people's love of the before and after with its Then & Now series, again focusing on the photographs foremost and using the captions to explain the history.


Photograph taken at almost the exact same location on Beach Road looking toward Watsonville Depot, 2017. [Derek R. Whaley]

Stylized Photographs

One domain of photograph that all historians need to be wary of are overly stylized photographs, especially those that were made for mass market consumption. The least offensive of these are stereographs. Stereographs were all the rage in the 1870s and 1880s before being replaced with colorized postcards. Some streographs are even colorized! The two images that make up a stereograph are not identical, but they depict the same exact moment since the pair of cameras snapped at the same time. That being said, these photographs are usually a low resolution and of lower quality than other similar photographs because of how they were produced. The differences between the photos in a pair, though, can be telling. The quarter inch offset sometimes reveals small details not present in the other photo, so these must be inspected closely. Also, the three dimensional aspect of the photograph should not be entirely discounted—it can sometimes bring out details that you may otherwise not have noticed and the added depth, while not perfect, occasionally reveals hidden secrets.

Stereograph of the San Lorenzo Valley flume, ca 1878, showing differences between photos. [Public Domain]

Stereographs shifted to colorized photographs, especially postcards, in the late 1880s and remained in vogue through the 1910s. Colorizing has always had some controversy about it since it is a biased technique. Until recently, all colorized photographs were done by hand, with artists choosing which shades to color specific parts of the photograph before the template was sent to a printer for mass production. And in almost all cases, the colorizer was not present to actually witness the scene they are colorizing, which means the colors are often arbitrary and invented. You can see this in postcards of the Sea Beach Hotel or the Santa Cruz Union Depot, which sport a variety of colors depending on the colorizer. Modern computer colorizing can be better in some respects in that it bases its algorithms on sets of tens of thousands of photographs in an attempt to shade areas with the correct colors based on the implied colors present in the photographs. But in both cases, the result is imprecise.

Colorized postcard of the Garfield Park Tabernacle revealing an old horsecar chassis converted into a streetcar shelterr at the top of Garfield (Woodrow) Avenue, ca 1905. [Public Domain]

Where colorizing can be helpful for local historians is what it can sometimes reveal. Normal monochrome photographs from the three decades either side of 1900 were prone to fading and yellowing, which led to a loss of definition. Commercial grade postcards in general survive better and colorized postcards even more so. Thus, colorized photographs can sometimes make certain details pop out where otherwise you may overlook them. The reverse of this is that colorizing can also downplay or obscure details that the colorizer found less interesting. Computer colorizing does not have this latter bias, however, so it has a tendency to make features, especially natural features such as the sky, trees, and bodies of water, really become more defined.

Stylized postcard of the Sea Beach Hotel on fire, modifying an existing photograph from 1904 with additional people added and artificial flames. Original photograph below. [Public Domain]

The biggest problem with using commercial photographs of any type, including stereographs, postcards, or even modern commercial photograph, is their tendency to be altered. Photographs can always be cropped to focus on a specific feature, but the entire purpose of commercial photographs is to sell prints and postcards so their printers focus very specifically on what they find important in the image. This often means that potentially interesting details are cut-off on the edges, or even cropped out and replaced with something else. In some cases, details are added, such as a train emerging from the tunnel at Laurel or a nighttime fire at the Sea Beach Hotel. It is a good idea to always consider the intended market of the photographs. On rare occasions, this can actually reveal its own useful historical facts. In any case, the use in historical research of any commercial photograph needs to be done with caution, especially when using colorized postcards.

Stylized photograph of the Laurel-Glenwood Tunnel (Tunnel #3) showing a hand-drawn train emerging at an odd angle, ca 1910. Original photograph by George Besaw. [Ken Lorenzen]

Photographs as subjects of in-depth analysis

In the end, though, photographs can be an excellent research tool when considered properly. They can reveal small details that other primary sources may have left out and they can help complete narratives that are missing vital information. For example, it is well known that the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 severely damaged the South Pacific Coast Railway's line through the Santa Cruz Mountains. But what is less well known is that an early winter storm in January 1909 damaged a lot of the recently-completed repair work, leading to a several months delay. Details from newspapers and first person accounts attest to this fact, but it is in the photographs that the real extent of the damage can be seen. And these photographs are not just illustrative, although they do accomplish that goal as well. Photographs taken around Laurel and Edric reveal massive sinks and slide activity, but they also reveal dual-gauged tracks along the line, as well as a previously unknown siding.

Southern Pacific right-of-way survey photograph of trackage in the Los Gatos area, showing a disused spur, February 12, 1930. [Los Gatos Public Library]

Similar railroad maintenance photographs accomplished this elsewhere, as well. Right-of-way survey photographs taken by Southern Pacific along a three-mile-long section of track through Los Gatos shows the full extent of the existing trackage in 1928, including the lack of freight spurs in the area and the disuse of many of the sidings. Photos taken of the route through the mountains in 1940 shows the extent of the damage to the line, with captions that accurately though concisely describe the locations and conditions. These candid, non-commercial photographs are able to show a degree of information not available elsewhere and not likely to be printed in any newspaper or published source.

Early postcard of Brookdale showing the station with a siding and the Reed's Spur in the bushes in the center, ca 1905. Note extra wide crossties suggesting the narrow gauge tracks would be upgraded soon to standard gauge. [George Pepper]

Despite the unreliability of postcards, they too can sometimes yield surprising things. The Brookdale area was heavily photographed for postcards and this has brought to light at least two photographs of the Clear Creek railroad bridge, several of the bridge to Huckleberry Island, and even one of the bridge north of the island. This has allowed me to identify the types of railroad bridges built in the area, at least after they were upgraded to standard gauge. Postcards and other contemporary photographs have also revealed the longevity of the Reed's Spur that once catered to timber interests at Brookdale before the location became a vacation destination. Some of this material could be derived from maps, charts, and plans of the Brookdale area as well, but the photographs serve as pieces of these puzzles rather than additions to them.

Photograph showing a railroad bridge crossing over railroad tracks, ca 1892. The upper bridge has subsequently been identified as the Loma Prieta Branch mainline. The track below is a private logging spur heading up a gulch. Aptos Creek itself is at the bottom of the hillside in the distance (off camera). [Ronnie Trubek]

More excitingly, though, is when photographs reveal features that seem bazaar or difficult to envision. Just north of the Boulder Creek yard, the Dougherty Extension Railroad passed over Boulder Creek, the San Lorenzo River, and Bear Creek in rapid succession and this arrangement has only completely been captured on maps. However, a sprawling panoramic photograph of Boulder Creek taken from a hill to the east of town shows the full extent of the freight yard there and, when observed closely, reveals the design of the first of these bridges at the extreme right corner. Similarly, a mysterious photograph taken in the Forest of Nisene Marks in the early 1890s shows a railroad bridge passing over railroad tracks, something that was unprecedented anywhere in the county except far to the north decades later. During subsequent research, however, I discovered that a single two-level track did exist in a location along Aptos Creek, which fit the image perfectly. Sometimes the fact comes before the photographic evidence, and sometimes the photograph precedes the evidence.

Mysterious structure on a rock beside narrow-gauge railroad tracks in a forest. Likely the McGaffigan family's home north of Boulder Creek, ca 1890s. [UC Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections]

The more frustrating part of using photographs as research tools is when things still are left unanswered. Mysterious, unidentified or misidentified photographs are the most annoying. For example, this photograph shows a strange fortress-like home beside railroad tracks, but the details of the tracks are too vague and the lack of a caption means that nothing can be known for certain. A secondary source describes a similar structure beside the Dougherty Extension Railroad's tracks at McGaffigan's Switch, but is this Patrick McGaffigan's home? Probably, but it can't be known with certainty and it may not even be a photo of Santa Cruz County! A similar problem occurred recently with several photographs sent to me of railroad construction in Los Gatos Creek, where the surrounding topography definitely did not correlate to what I knew of the area. Thus captions and assumptions must be tested and questioned repeatedly when using photographs for evidence.

Four photographs showing the evolution of Lower Pacific Avenue from ca 1880 to ca 1935. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections]

Where photographs shine the most as a research tool is actually in documenting change, so as comparative photographs. But rather than posting both photographs for the reader to do the comparisons, the researcher does the comparisons and summarizes the results. For some locations such as the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, or the Union Depot, or the freight spurs in Watsonville, these comparisons can include dozens of photographs spanning decades and incorporate maps, charts, and other material as well to cross reference information. For example, there are enough photographs of Pacific Avenue just before it curves around Beach Hill to demonstrate a long progression of development from the late 1870s, when the first horsecar line was installed, to the 1940s, when the area finally saw permanent commercial development. With these, you can see the addition of power lines, the upgrading of the horsecar to a single track streetcar line, the widening of the road, the addition of two tracks, the construction of businesses along the road, etc. Some of these details would have been included in newspapers and county records, among other places, but the visual progression is just as useful, so long as the dates of the photographs can be properly assessed. Thus photographs can be used just like any other source when researching, but their importance must be weighed accordingly. 

Downsides and problems with this source:

Most of the major downsides of using photographs are mentioned above, but there are a few more general ones that must be taken into account. First and foremost, a photograph does not tell a story. A lot of people think it does, but it doesn't. Not without outside context, at least. Sometimes a caption on the back of the photograph can tell the story, but that's the only exception. Everything else in a photograph must be drawn from other knowledge, that can also be flawed. If you see a photograph of Walt Disney and Billy Jones meeting beside a miniature locomotive at the Jones Ranch in the early 1950s, you are taking for granted the fact that a) you know what Walt Disney and Billy Jones look like, b) you can identify this as a specific type of rolling stock in the image, c) you know this is the Jones Ranch, and d) you know the approximate year that the two men met at the ranch. Those are a lot of details and any one of them could be wrong, either due to a lapse in memory or because of an incorrect source. Images can help clarify or correct facts but they can't reveal the initial facts. They are always secondary sources in that respect—another type of source needs to be used to fully trust what you are seeing.

Billy Jones and Walt Disney at the Jones Family Ranch, early 1950s. [Billy Jones Family]

Second and related to the first, you can't trust everything you see in a photograph. As mentioned above, photos can be altered and photographic techniques can be used to give image unrealistic depth, color, or angles. Even the captions written on the fronts of postcards can't be trusted and, in fact, are often the least trustworthy part of a postcard. But handwritten captions and postmarks can also be incorrect or not accurately reflect the intent or age of the photo. And geography is not always clear in photographs, so do not assume directions or elevations or ridge lines in scenic images without cross verifying with other images and topographic maps, when necessary. When relying on a photograph as your primary evidence for something, be extra weary for anything out of the ordinary and do not be afraid to acknowledge uncertainty.

Photograph of the C. H. Squire general store at Wrights,  1925. [Public Domain]

Lastly, there is the constant problem of copyright. As a general disclaimer, I am not a lawyer and the following information should all be taken as non-legal advice. If you have specific questions about copyright law, seek a lawyer. Generally speaking however, ownership of copyrights is often difficult to determine and even harder to enforce in the United States. Any photograph published before January 1, 1926 anywhere in the world is considered in the public domain in the U.S. That means that if you find the photo online in a substantively unaltered state (scanned, photocopied, or digitally touched-up images don't count as altered) and you can prove that it was produced before 1926, then you can use it free of charge, although attribution is appreciated. Things get more complicated from here. If it was produced between 1926 and 1977 and the copyright was not renewed—which in most case it will not have been—then it is also public domain. After 1977, the odds are much higher that the photograph is not in the public domain, although there is still a good chance even up to 1989 that it could be. For images that aren't in the public domain, the copyright is usually upheld for 120 years from the date of creation, 95 years after the first publication, or 70 years after the death of the author, all dependent on the status of who owns the copyright. The earliest date that any of these types of images can enter the public domain is 2047.

Nothing to see here. Just a few Italian fishermen on the Railroad Wharf transferring their catch from their boat, ca 1905. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections]

The onus is on the historian or user of the photos to conduct due diligence in order to determine the copyright status before using a photograph. This may involve reaching out to the owner, contacting the publisher, or doing a comprehensive search to determine either. The key is that if you do not do due diligence and the copyright holder takes issue, then you are liable. This can especially be problematic when you are given collections or given permission to use images from someone's collection, since they also may not own the photographs or have a right to distribute them freely. The benefit of post images online is that they can be taken down relatively easily—published images are not so easy. Also, copyright suits over image infringements have been rare and usually settled out of court, so don't let potential copyright violations haunt your dreams. As long as you are careful and cautious in your usage, you should be fine.

Local History Resources:
National:

  • Library of Congress (Online) – A nationwide mixed media collection with a limited selection of images from Santa Cruz County and its surroundings.
California:
  • Calisphere (Online) – A massive mixed media repository that covers all aspect of California history.
  • Sources material from University of California databases, as well as other state repositories.
  • Online Archive of California (OAC) (Online) – A massive mixed media repository that covers all aspect of California history. Sourced primarily from private collections and smaller institutions from throughout the state.
  • California State Library (Online) – A massive mixed media collection that covers all aspects of California history, politics, and culture.
  • California State Archives (Partially online) – A massive mixed media collection that covers all aspects of California history, politics, and culture.
  • California State Railroad Museum – No online database. A massive mixed media collection that covers all aspects of railroading in California and the neighboring states.
  • Pacific Coast Narrow Gauge (Online) – A small database of photographs and information relating to California and West Coast narrow-gauge railroads.
Santa Cruz County:
  • Santa Cruz Public Libraries (Online) – A somewhat random collection of local images, most derived from donated collections with some public domain material mixed in.
  • UC Santa Cruz Legacy Digital Collections (Online) – A massive mixed media collection from throughout the history of Santa Cruz County, with a strong emphasis on the history of the university and the City of Santa Cruz.
  • Soquel Pioneers (Online) – This small website contains a collection of historical photographs related specifically to Soquel and a little bit of Capitola.
  • Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History – No online database. The museum holds an extensive collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum's archives in Santa Cruz. Booking recommended.
  • Capitola Museum – No online database. The museum holds a modest collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum in Capitola. Booking required.
  • Pajaro Valley Agricultural History Project – No online database. The project holds a modest collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum in Watsonville. Booking required.
  • Pajaro Valley Historical Association – No online database. The museum holds an extensive collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum's archives in Watsonville. Booking recommended.
  • San Lorenzo Valley Museum – No online database. The museum holds an extensive collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum's archives in Boulder Creek. Booking required.
Santa Clara County:
  • History Los Gatos (Online) – A comprehensive collection of photographs and other material aggregated primarily from the New Museum of Los Gatos (NuMu) and the Los Gatos Library.
  • History San José (Online) – A comprehensive collection of photographs and other material aggregated primarily from private donations over many decades.
  • Sourisseau Academy for State and Local History – The local history wing of San José State University responsible for collecting material related to Santa Clara County history and its surrounding regions, as well as more general California history. Bookings required.
  • Gilroy Historical Society – Small online database. The museum holds a modest collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum in Gilroy. Booking recommended.
Monterey and San Benito Counties:
  • Monterey County Free Libraries (Online) – A modest mixed media collection of local images, with many derived from private donations over many decades. The actual libraries' archives are located in Marina. Booking recommended.
  • San Benito County Historical Society – No online database. The museum holds an extensive collection of photographs that can be browsed at the museum's archives in Hollister. Booking recommended.
This list will be expanded as more sources of photographs become available to the public.

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