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Editor’s Note, March/April 2006

Picturing History

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, March/April 2006 | Volume 27, Number 2

"Photographs are, of course, artifacts," the social critic Susan Sontag once wrote. "But their appeal is that they also seem, in a world littered with photographic relics, to have the status of found objects--unpremeditated slices of the world. Thus, they trade simultaneously on the prestige of art and the magic of the real . . . "

In this issue of Humanities we look at the interaction of words and pictures. One instance involves the writer Jack London, who was jolted awake at his ranch on an April day one hundred years ago when an earthquake shook San Francisco. He and his wife Charmian grabbed their cameras and headed for the city to record the devastation.

"Within an hour after the earthquake shock, the smoke of San Francisco's burning was a lurid tower visible a hundred miles away," London wrote in Collier's magazine. "And for three days and nights this lurid tower swayed in the sky, reddening the sun, darkening the day, and filling the land with smoke." Accompanying the piece were sixteen pages of photographs by London and his wife.

Some of those San Francisco images and others pictures taken by the Londons were rediscovered recently--twelve thousand of them. "They were in a vault," says professor Jeanne Campbell Reesman of the University of Texas, San Antonio, "and people weren't allowed to access them because they're fragile." She and a colleague, Sara S. Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library, are selecting 120 for a book that follows London's career overseas, from Britain's slums to the Russo-Japanese War.

In the 1920s, the world of the still picture expanded with the arrival on the scene of the newsreel. Rather than just seeing a static image, viewers could see figures in the news walking and talking as history was made.

"Newsreels offered the American movie-going audience a glimpse of the important political, cultural, and natural events shaping the world around them," says Benjamin Singleton, news film coordinator at the University of South Carolina Newsfilm Library. Three quarters of the country's movie houses showed newsreels with each week's feature film. They captured historic moments: Lindbergh taking off for Paris, the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor. They provided coverage of major events until the 1950s when television began to dominate the scene.

Thousands of images from the past have been preserved with NEH support. Benjamin Singleton's university maintains the Fox Movietone News Collection; the Denver Library cataloged 600,000 photographs on the opening of the West; the Oakland Museum of California documented the Depression-era pictures of Dorothea Lange; the New York Public Library preserved 175,000 vaudeville and theater images from the early 1900s.

Many of the projects have put the images into databases that can be searched via the Internet. Making images more readily accessible is one of the benefits of the new technology. "I get excited about these efforts to digitize information retrospectively," Vinton Cerf of Google tells NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. "And we're not limited to textual material. We can be recording sound, we can be recording images and so on." Where technology as a whole will take us is unpredictable, but Cerf takes an expansive view.

"The edge of the Net is essentially open to anything you want to try. So for me it's not just the unleashing of the content, but it is the unleashing of human creativity to try things out."