Archival Appraisal for Acquisition

The Usefulness of Press Photographs

Acquisition of images which will both fit the mission of the archives and offer maximum usefulness to numerous archive clients is a challenge.

The most useful pictures are those which illustrate activities, events or specific locations. Original press photographs may be appropriate and useful additions to the photograph holdings, but press photographs have a poor reputation amongst archivists. Many repositories have had recent copies thrust upon them, minus the original documentation. Sometimes, these copies have been made from the many digitized image sources available online, and the original is the proud property of another archive. Not all archivists are skilled at separating silver prints from dye and plastic. Nor does every institution have staff time to check the provenance of each image. Once embarrassed by being caught serving a photograph with a really bad donor-imposed caption, the archivist cannot be blamed for being nervous about accepting more.

We wish that family photographs were richer in documented views and vignettes of activities. However, what are most commonly offered by donors are portraits. Portraits of accomplished persons are of wider use, particularly if they are not represented in another accessible collection and are not restricted by copyright or donor agreements. However, the sad truth is that portraits of average citizens will have limited appeal (mostly to the occasional descendants who are thrilled to finally see great-uncle Fred). If the portrait is both identified AND dated, there may be useful details such as costume or hair style which will serve the clients at the archive. The archivist might ponder, however, just how many clients researching the history of hairdressing arrive each year. A quick glance at the photograph index will prove that, outside of portraits, the major subject groups are family activities such as picnics, weddings and cute grandkids. Being part of the family fonds these are kept. The topics are useful, but they not the important themes which give the archive status and win public support.

In my opinion, the small local archives in particular must be proactive with image collections. There is a danger of becoming a substitute shoebox for guilty families who no longer want grandma’s photos. Although lovely, many family photo fonds lack sufficient image “oomph” to be widely useful and desirable to patrons.

Below is an example of a press photograph which enhances a collection of portraits of World War Two soldiers.

Many Lennox and Addington veterans served in the Canadian Artillery in World War Two, and were part of the Canadian First Army in 1945, which was a multi-national force commanded by Canadian General Harry Crerar. In February 1945, they were advancing into Germany along the Nijmegen-Cleve road. A ridge of land held by the German 84th Division was a major impediment. The Allies called this ridge, “The Nutterden Feature”. The airforce was to bomb the ridge on February 8th, but bad weather and the proximity of the Canadians delayed the attack. Instead, the artillery was used, consisting of the British Worcestershire Regiment and the Canadians. On February 9th through February 10th, following the bombardment, the allies advanced on the ridge. This assault was actually commanded by General Brian Horrocks. The weather was grey, cold and generally miserable. After a struggle with the very determined enemy, the Nutterden Feature was won, opening up the Cleve Road. This action was part of “Operation Veritable” (Battle of the Rhineland).

This photograph (British Newspaper Pool No. 390213/4) shows British troops and Canadians advancing into the German trenches on the Nutterden feature. It conveys more quickly then words the military significance of the ridge and the size of the bombardment necessary to win it.

Allied troops in the German trenches of Nutterden Feature, 1945

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Filed under Archives, Canada at war., Photographica, Photography

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