Images are an important part of our life stories captured in photo albums, including that picture of a first piece of birthday cake, summer vacations, graduations, weddings, and other moments. Perhaps that’s why historical photos hold a similar fascination for students of all ages. It’s a chance for them to become voyeurs of times long gone, and visual evidence of real events in history—some more than 100 years old—that depicts surroundings, mannerisms, modes of dress, and transportation that seem foreign by today’s standards. And sometimes, a photographer captures the unthinkable picture during a historical event, such as a world war, the Holocaust, the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, or the tragedy of 9/11 in New York. A picture can also answer important questions such as how badly the Titanic was damaged or how big the crowd on the mall was during a presidential inauguration.
Who is credited with inventing photographs? German-born pioneer Johann Heinrich Schulze initially proved that the darkening of salts was caused by exposure to light. This discovery, when combined with a camera obscura, formed the basis for photography. However, it was Louis Daguerre, a French photographer who was credited as being the father of photography with his invention of the daguerreotype process in the nineteenth century, and Henry Fox Talbot, an English scientist and inventor. The process employed an iodine-sensitized silvered plate and mercury vapor. At the time, the most desirable use for photography was portraiture; however, one of the earliest, and perhaps most famous, subjects of historical significance was the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. One of the first archival shots of the structure was captured in late 1800s photos.
A photo is an important element of classroom instruction, too. Archival photos can provide context for students, and can act as visual aids that offer a concrete frame of reference for important moments in history. Pairing authoritative text with historical photographs lends credibility to any subject. In fact, researchers suggest that students are more likely to believe what they are reading when text is paired with a compelling historical photo rather than other representational data, such as graphs and charts or more complex book text. In a series of experiments, David McCabe, an assistant professor of psychology at Colorado State University, was able to prove that historical digital images have a persuasive influence on perception. In another study done at Gazi University in Ankara, Turkey, a connection between photograph usage in history education was directly tied to student achievement.