Photographs: A Lens for Learning About the Past

Photographs as Primary Source Tools to Support Integrated Learning

Pictures are worth a thousand words, and are essentially invaluable in studies of history! Families can take advantage of a local exhibit and online archives in order to use the power of observation to learn about life in the past, both in western Massachusetts and across the country.

Though a bit cliché, the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is entirely true – especially when it comes to using photographs as an educational tool. The power of observation alone can reveal a lot of information, making historic images an especially useful primary source resource for learning about the way people lived and looked in eras past. Available only since the mid-1800’s, photographs show real humans living within a very real – yet presently physically inaccessible – context, allowing us to visually access the time period in which they lived.

Utilizing online resources, families can support studies of the past by using the power of observation to gather information about life in a particular era or within a particular context. Whether examining photographs of Civil War soldiers in a Union encampment to imagine life as a 19th century soldier or inspecting a landscape photograph of a familiar location for signs of human-driven change over time, families have much to learn from the hundreds of thousands of photographs available online.  While the most historic moments of our past might seem initially to be the most important photographs to examine, images of important historical figures are generally much less candid and revealing than those of anonymous subjects of lesser historical import. For example, a photograph of a past president might show the president’s looks and the clothes typical to the years of their presidency, but a photograph of factory workers from the same time period says more about the reality of being human in that context, and would also teach a viewer about the technologies available within a particular industry.


Currently, families can see historic images up close and personal at the Great Falls Discovery Center, where ”What’s In a Name? Villages, Hamlets, and Hollows of the Swift River Valley” is on display through March 28th, 2015. Open Fridays and Saturdays from 10am to 4pm, the exhibit reveals what life was like in the now-flooded towns that once dotted the valley in which the waters of the Quabbin Reservoir sit. Families can learn not only about the lost communities, but life in western Massachusetts in the early 20th century in general as, though they no longer exist, the Swift River towns were not unlike most other local communities.

The UMass Amherst Libraries host the exhibit Yankee Yarns: True Tales of New England Characters from the 1920s and 1930s, through Monday, June 8, 2015, in the Learning Commons (Lower Level) and Special Collections and University Archives (Floor 25), at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Yankee Yarns showcases “Blackie” Blackington’s New England photography from the 1920s to the 1930s. Alton H. Blackington (1893-1963) was a writer, photojournalist, and radio personality associated with New England “lore and legend.” The exhibit covers terrain stretching from news of public officials and civic events to local personalities, but the heart of the exhibit is images of typically eccentric New England characters and human interest stories. Images, such as a young JFK, Charles Lindberg, and Upton Sinclair are paired with colorful hermits and charlatan astrologer Prof. Braganza, with background stories and their colorful “Yankee yarns.”

Local Online Resource

Additionally, families can utilize online resources as a means of using images to explore the past two centuries’ history. The Forbes Library’s digital gallery 150 Years of Northampton Photography reveals fascinating moments in the town’s past, including Richard Nixon visiting Smith College, the 10th Infantry Regiment camping out at the fairgrounds, and the aftermath of the disastrous Mill River flood of 1874. Holyoke Community College also offers online archives, though they are not entirely devoted to local history. Containing over 5,000 images, HCC’s photograph archives can be searched by person or topic, or by description of a photo’s contents.

National Online Resource

Other non-local online resources include the website Old Pictures offers photographs and historic maps sorted by theme as well as a special collection titled Defining Moments, which highlights some of the most interesting photographs in the collection. Finally, the archives at Digital Commonwealth include thousands of photographs and maps from all across the state. Users can search by location or topic in order to find photographs specific to their own community, or can simply peruse the archive’s contents in order to stumble upon a gem. Additionally, Digital Commonwealth offers lesson plans that can be used to enhance the educational experience of learning from images. Specific to the Boston area and designed for older learners (10+), the lesson plans could make for a fascinating study of the history of the state’s capital which could culminate in a family day trip to see the locations that appear in the study!

[Photo credit: (cc) Sunchild57 Photography.]

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