Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words

Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-19173

Well, maybe not 1,000, but even as a writer I can’t deny the power of a photograph. One click of a shutter release and BAM, we see a story. Photos capture drama (left, survivors from the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania). They convey emotion. Sometimes they offer clarity. At other times they fill us with questions. And that’s where the words come in (thank goodness, say the writers).

I owe at least two of my books to photos. I became so captivated by the Earnest Withers “I AM A MAN” image from Memphis 1968 that I wrote a whole book about it, Marching to the Mountaintop. Ditto for the “Blood Brothers” image of John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, following their beating as Freedom Riders on May 20, 1961. (See page 42 of this title.)

I’m not sure which I love more, writing or photo research. Both are passions for me, so I am lucky to work in a genre that seamlessly weaves the two media into a powerful forum for conveying the stories of history. If you read these words on their magical 12-12-12 posting date, you can imagine me engaged in photo research. I’ll be in Washington, D.C., that day, wrapping up three days of research for my latest project which, come to think of it, started with an image, too. (Or at least it started during an earlier round of photo research when my efforts to track down the background of one picture led to the discovery of a whole new story from the past.)

Photo courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-highsm-01901
So what is photo research like? Truthfully it’s about as glamorous as a day of writing, which is to say not very. By the end of the day my back aches for bending over images. My mind is so warped by time traveling through thousands of windows into the past that it is jarring to step out into real time. My sleep is animated by disjointed pictures as my mind races to process all the scenes it has observed.

But photo research is also as rewarding as writing. That moment when you revise to the perfect conclusion is matched by the discovery of a gotta-have-it photograph. I suspect there is some chemical parallel between gambling and photo research, because that rush of excitement from finding one great picture becomes the fuel for the next few hours of fruitless searching.

Sometimes I do photo research using on-line databases. Sometimes I’m on site, glove-adorned, paging through carefully catalogued original prints. And sometimes I’m cut loose in an archive of dog-eared, we-should-organize-these-some-day gems. I become a treasure hunter, gently sifting through the sheets of chemical-infused paper to find just the right shades of sepia and cream. Here a dramatic smile. There a scene filled with action. Now a glimpse of a forgotten figure. Then a fresh look at a favorite icon. Sorting the wheat from the chaff, the powerful from the mundane.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-highsm-03177
One of my favorite places to conduct photo research is the Library of Congress, and I will be there at least twice during my current research trip. Those on-site trips offer access to materials that are otherwise inaccessible, but these days it’s getting easier and easier to find treasures using the online databases of the Library’s Prints and Photographs Collection. I’m a big booster of this site, especially when I do school visits. Anyone who hasn’t used it should kill an hour or two playing around with the search engines. More and more material is now accessible off-site, and any images that can be downloaded from a remote location can be used with a clear conscience as material in the public domain. These are our tax dollars at work, people. It’s wonderful! Enjoy!

P.S.: I’ve developed an online tutorial for using the collections of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs division. For more information, visit the Muckrakers page of my author website and follow the tab marked “Behind the scenes—photo research.”


Sue Macy said...

Ann: I envy you your time at the LOC. I hope it's been productive. Of course, we're both lucky to write for a publisher that knows how to use the photographs we find to the best effect, and to have designers and art directors who appreciate them as much as we do. It takes a village....

Gretchen Woelfle said...

I love picture research too - not only photos, but what librarians call ephemera: postcards, posters, menus, etc. Those seemingly trivial items that can bring a person or an era to life. And I too am a big fan of LOC's online catalog!

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Wonderful post, Ann! I love that Ernest Withers picture, too. My Uncle Bob knew him back in the day. While researching my latest book I spent countless hours with another of LOC's online treasures, the George Washington papers in the Manuscript Division. What a thrill to read Washington's words in his own hand!