Trying to capture history in ordinary life

Rural Wisconsin, 2012

For quite some time — literally decades — I have known that I would not be the kind of person who makes a big impact on the world. I did, however, believe that I would impact someone who would then go on to impact the world. It hasn’t happened yet, but there’s still time.

So in the meantime, while I wait for that person to cross my path, I’m intrigued by the concept of recording ordinary history with me camera. (Ok, these two thoughts made sense together last night. Today, I’m not sure how they relate, but I’m going to leave them in.)

Ordinary history?

Recording ordinary moments in time that would seem boring to us at the time it is captured but takes on importance as time goes by.

I’ve thought about this often but haven’t put it into action. But today I saw this piece about Charles Cushman, the man who invented color film. The pictures he took while developing this new product weren’t award winning. They were quite ordinary at the time. They are history now. Ordinary history.

I’m living in Columbia, Mo. A college town. A small city that is growing rapidly. Ordinary history is happening everyday. I watch it, but I don’t capture it. Maybe today — well, tomorrow — is the day I start capturing ordinary history.

As image researcher Rich Remsberg said, photography is “about being a witness to our times.”

But I find it hard to look at an “ordinary” picture and see the qualities that will make it a good slice of history 30, 40, 50 years from now. I often think that the pictures of people, which are my bread and butter in photojournalism, don’t make the best slices of history.

Often the best slices are the scene setters, the street scenes, the photos of large groups of people. When I look at old photos I look at the cars, the clothes, the tools. In the farm scene above, it will be easy to see changes over time in the landscape, the buildings, even technology. In the picture below, which is largely about the faces, i have a hard time seeing what will make it a valuable historical image.

Soldier’s funeral, Columbia, Mo. 2012

I’d appreciate your feedback on this. I want to try to put more effort into shooting historical photos as my way of making an impact on world. Oh hey! There’s how those thoughts relate!

Wheelchaired spectators, Iowa State Fair. 2011

Construction site, Columbia, Mo. 2012

Resuscitation training manikins, Columbia, Mo. 2011

Crowd at the Iowa State Fair, Des Moines, Iowa. 2011

College softball pitcher, Columbia, Mo. 2012


4 responses to “Trying to capture history in ordinary life

  1. It seems to me that unless you’re shooting (photographing) the president or some such, you can’t know a priori what is (will be) historical. Maybe the best you can do is to provide the information from which historians will tell the future stories of the past.

  2. Karen,

    I think you’ve touched upon one of the essential purposes of photography that I think we forget when the subject, ISO setting or even lighting are in our way. We forget to see photography as a time capsule.

    I’ve actually thought about this purpose of photography a lot actually, especially when a love one or famous celebrity has recently passed away. Yesterday they were alive and well, but today, only their memories and images remain. But memories are hard to remember, photos on the hand, capture moments for good. They capture the time they were taken, the emotion the subject was experiencing, a maybe (if done well) the personality on the subject you now so badly miss.

    Photographers may have an eye for capturing visual moments, however rarely can they dictate the longevity of a photo. We’re photographers, not historians, not time travelers. All we can do is soak up life, keeping our eyes open and our cameras always by our side.

    Thanks for the blog post Karen.

  3. Thanks for your reply, Matt, but I’m not sure what you’re saying. Are you saying that we’re recording history — and therefore making historical images — every time we pick up the camera?

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