By Daniel Hubbard | August 18, 2009
Not so long ago, I started using a new camera, the first truly good camera I’ve ever tried. It’s an interesting process getting to know a camera. There are all the buttons and dials, of course, but there is also a lot of just plain experimentation to be done. How will the camera perform under these odd lighting conditions? How will changing the settings affect the results in this case?
Perhaps the most interesting experiences have to do with finding a subject, coming in on a detail that the eye would not normally catch, getting the angle and the lighting right or at least doing the best possible with what nature throws at you and placing the subject just right in the frame. There is also an art, that I can’t claim to have mastered, in seeing what the viewers of the photograph will see and making the image meaningful without all the sensory input that they will never have.
It occurs to me that these are some of the same questions that come up when trying to reconstruct an individual life. At first one is happy to snap any old picture- a bit grainy, a bit out of focus, rather underexposed and parts of the subject not even in the picture. Later we want to throw light upon a problem but we also need to think about what kind of light and from what direction. What angle do we need to take to best look at this life? What details can we zoom in on? What will stand out? What else is in the picture- the background, the foreground as well as those things just off to the side. What meaning can be found, what interpretations will be given to the image that we can present the viewer? The family historian may even find an image of their subject made long ago and discover with some diligence that, like many a photograph, it has been retouched.
Like any analogy this one has its limits but even limits can be revealing. The photographer can choose the subject and often the backdrop then reposition for photo after photo. The family historian must work with the subjects and historical background they are given and cannot make just any number of different “images” of a life to see which one they might like best. The photographer is limited to photographing what exists in the here-and-now. The genealogist is most often found focusing on somewhere else in some half-forgotten time and may never quite get the subject in fully within the frame.Twitter It!