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Understanding Common Record Types: Photographs

Guide to understanding common types of archive documents: abstracts of title, accounts, annual reports, charters & letters patent, constitutions, diaries, household books, land deeds, letters, manorial records, maps & plans, minutes, photographs, & wills.

Introduction to photographs

Visual documents which reproduce a real world image onto a suitable support medium, image may be manipulated to enhance, alter or change the original scene during the processing stage.

Why they were created

Created to capture and represent visual information, such as a vista, the look of a person, a street scene, etc. Also to evidence events and occurrences, possibly with a political or artistic agenda, or for reasons of personal reflection.

Who might have created them

Created by amateur photographers, professional photographers, photographic studios, and increasingly by ordinary individuals as technology became cheaper and easier to use.

Where you might find them

Usually found with personal records, such as letters and diaries, or with publicity material and files relating to specific events. Commonly found in the following collections:

  • Landed families
  • Artists
  • Individuals
  • Societies
  • Businesses
  • Charities
  • Campaign groups

Period from which they most commonly survive

Rare survivals from the early 19th century, increased survival from the late 19th century, and exist in large numbers from the mid-20th century.

Key features

Physical features

  • Variety of physical formats including:
  • Glass support medium with image on surface
  • Small negatives on film, often framed in card or plastic for use in slide projector machines
  • Prints on paper, using a variety of developing processes
  • Digital file (JPEG, TIFF, etc.), on storage media such as a CD, USB drive, hard drive
  • Loose in packets or envelopes, or might be affixed into albums or scrapbooks

Informational content

  • Name of photographer or photographic studio may be printed on the front or reverse
  • Often find pencil or ink annotations on the reverse, which provide details about the subject matter and date
  • Common subjects include portraits, landscapes, buildings, street scenes, family groups, sports teams, members of a particular organisation
Group of 15 women and two men posing for a picture, the women all wear hats and neat clothing, whilst the men both wear suits and ties

U DJV/20

Black and white photograph with handwritten caption, showing female participants in the Cornish Clayworkers strike, 1915

Woman dressed in a wedding dress and veil holding a bunch of flowers

U DFW/1/9/13

Sepia photograph of Muriel Wilson on her wedding day, 1917 

Five elderly men sit on a bench on a shopping street whilst another man is stood talking to them, all wear flat caps and overcoats, in the background a pram with side pram can be seen and various people are walking past the shops

U DX389/3/7

Black and white negative showing a street scene in Hull city centre, c.1958-1959 

Man sat in a chair at a desk in an attic room, the man is reading and there is a typewriter on the desk

U DTFG/6/1

Colour photograph of Tony Griffin at work in his study, c.1970s

Note on critical analysis

Things to consider:

  • The composition of a photograph is a conscious choice made by the photographer in order to present a particular perspective or subject
  • The image captured in a photograph can be manipulated at multiple stages before the final image is presented
  • An analogue photograph can be manipulated at the point of capture through the application of lens filters and shutter speeds, during preparation for processing through the selection of areas of film to be developed, whilst the image is being developed through choice of chemicals and support media and by adjusting development time, and finally by editing the image post development
  • In the case of a digital photograph, digital filters and exposure times can be adjusted at the point of capture, file save formats can adjust the amount of information captured, and post save processing of the original file using software can dramatically change the look of an image or even remove elements of that image
  • The use and context of presentation of a photograph can change over time and is important when evaluating how an audience might have understood and interpreted the image

Potential research uses

Photographs can be useful when undertaking research into the following areas:

  • Studies of presentation and representation of subjects, individuals and groups
  • Development of fashion from the 19th century to the present
  • Urban and rural development and change over time
  • Evidence of events
  • Buildings history and architecture
  • Impact of global events on the landscape, i.e WWII devastation of Hull
  • History of photography
  • Protest imagery
  • Depictions of leisure
  • Depictions of working class life
  • Depictions of the landed classes
  • Modes of transport
  • Seafaring communities
  • Dock development

Specialist skills and knowledge

Further reading in the following areas will help researchers when using these sources:

  • Photographic processes, in order to correctly identify photographic types
  • History of photography, in order to place items in context
  • Basic theories of photographic interpretation

Resources at Hull History Centre

The following dedicated photographic collections may be of interest:

  • U DX389 - Photographic Collection of John Turner
  • U DX336 - Claude William Jamson Archive

Search for further examples of photographs using our online catalogue. Try using search terms such as photograph, negative, lantern slide, glass plate, etc.

Alternatively, if you prefer to browse, the file below contains a list of photographs held at Hull History Centre. Please note that this list is not comprehensive, but represents key examples of the document type.

Further help

Help available online:

The following secondary literature provides overviews of the historical development of photography to aid understandings of specific types of photographic record. It also explores the cultural context of photography: