“I collect photographs because I love history.”
Will Seippel, the founder of History in Photographs and the CEO of WorthPoint, has said this to me many times. We’ve spent hours together sifting through boxes full of negatives. We unwrap delicate glass plates. We sort through tiny envelopes that are jam-packed with thin plastic strips. Through it all, Will grins like a kid on Christmas morning.
“And it’s not about the famous people,” he clarifies. “I began collecting because I wanted to document history the way normal Americans saw it. I wanted to know how ordinary people experienced extraordinary times.”
The result of that curiosity is History in Photographs (or HIP, as we call it). The HIP collection, which Will has been building for decades, includes nearly 50,000 photographic negatives. The collection covers both time and space, from shipbuilding towns in New England to National Parks and through the American West. It documents the birth of commercial aviation and the early years of television. It charts the life of the railroad, the travels of the Model T, and follows servicemen overseas. It stretches from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to family vacations in the 1980s.
The collection contains multitudes: generals and soldiers, burlesque performers and politicians, families and loners. Some faces are recognizable. Others remain anonymous. Some of our photographers have big names, but many of them are as unknown as their subjects. True to its inspiration, HIP includes a wealth of stories, and we’re excited to share every last one. Whether you’re looking to purchase a print or peruse our treasure trove, we’re happy you’re here.
A collection of this magnitude has much to teach, not only about American history but about the medium itself. Photography has experienced many technological shifts since the daguerreotype’s debut in 1839. Even so, the photograph maintains a mysterious hold on us. Now more than ever, we are photography’s creators as well as its captives.
Our world is overrun by photographs. They create our global awareness and our sense of possible futures. In a world as image-saturated and image-conscious as ours, we might expect the medium to get dull. Maybe we ought to be burned out on pictures after nearly 200 years. Then again, perhaps this is another sign of photography’s uncanny power. Despite its dominance, the photograph still attracts our curiosity and love. We want to collect them, even though they refuse to leave us alone.
From the beginning, photography was unique. During its infancy, both critics and champions seemed unsure about how to categorize it. Photography belonged to multiple disciplines, from journalism to biology to tourism. This flexibility baffled the earliest commentators. What is the photograph? Is it art? Or a tool for scientific inquiry? Or a method for spreading Victorian morals to the rest of the masses? How does one describe a medium that can do so much?
As photographic applications increased, more questions emerged. Does the photograph use its power to reveal the truth? Or is photographic realism just an illusion? Does the photograph capture our world or create a new one? Perhaps Susan Sontag was correct when she wrote (decades before the advent of social media) that our representations of the world are often more powerful than reality itself.
A website devoted to photographs cannot help but engage these questions. Of course, we are not the first to do so. Generations of scholars and theorists have picked apart this unique relationship between humans and their photographic representations. Most agree that photography’s power comes from its realistic pretenses. The existence of a photograph depends on the existence of whatever once stood before its lens. This dependence upon the real world defines the photograph and how we experience it.
Media professor Philip Rosen notes that whenever we treat a photograph as a reliable source of information, we’re acting with a certain amount of optimism. We assume that images can tell some truth about our world. We also assume that a photograph’s viewers are capable of analyzing that truth. Photographic interpretation and historical interpretation require the same type of faith. We believe in our senses, in our ability to observe and gather data. We believe in our capacity to turn strange images, strange events, and strange people into cohesive narratives. These faiths are why we give instant credibility to a photograph. This tendency says just as much about us as it does about our images.
Then again, not all photographs deserve this trust. Photography both encourages and challenges our power as storytellers. It dares us to formulate a hypothesis about the observed world and reminds us of its power to deceive. The medium might tell us our histories, but it also tells us about ourselves as writers of history. The photograph doesn’t always deserve our faith. Neither do the storytellers.
For collectors, questions about history and history-creation become even more intriguing. Collectors have a unique relationship to the medium. It differs from the perspectives of scholars, enthusiasts, and even artists. Issues of authenticity, aesthetics, and cultural relevance all boil down to one big question: What is a photograph worth? What causes some to be worth more than others? What motivates us to assign value to certain photographs and histories? And, what do those value judgments reveal about us?
At HIP, we’re fascinated by these kinds of questions. As you enjoy our collection, we invite you to join the inquiry. This website is the digital home for thousands of images, but HIP is also an anthology of questions, conversations, and resources. So far, we’ve been creating blog posts to shed light on our favorite images. In the weeks and months to come, you can expect to see even more. We’re bringing together collectors, appraisers, and historians to help tell the story of this collection. We also want to shed light on the art of collecting. We hope that our work will help explain why our photographs matter and why yours do too.
Maybe you’re curious about our collection or starting one of your own. Either way, HIP aspires to be a helpful space. Come along as we study photography’s ageless power. We hope that HIP emboldens you to learn more about photographs and histories. Perhaps, in that process, you’ll learn something about yourself.
References (and fun reads):
Susan Sontag’s On Photography (published by Picador)
“History of Image, Image of History: Subject and Ontology in Bazin” by Philip Rosen, published in Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema (published by Duke University Press)