Photographs, Paintings, or Drawings

Photographs, paintings and drawings are an important source of information for historians. Most importantly, they tell us how things looked. Even the most detailed description of a street, a house, a room, or a teapot cannot communicate as much information as an image. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is a popular sentiment that captures the potency of visual evidence. One of the reasons we photograph special times in our lives, such as graduation ceremonies, weddings, and vacations, is because photographs help us to remember a particular moment or place. Rarely do we take the time to write lengthy descriptions of such events.

While photographs may appear to be factual and truthful, they are never 100% objective. Photographers and painters often stage photographs to obtain certain effects. Portraits, for example, are often commissioned to make individuals look particularly noble, serious, professional, athletic, or beautiful. The character shown in the photographic or painted portrait, in other words, may be radically different than the person in real life. Montreal photographer William Notman even photographed scenes that never really happened. His “composite portraits” were collages of individuals who may have never met. He pasted their photographs together to make a photograph of a gathering that never occurred. Painter Robert Harris, like Notman, had complete control over the way he depicted members of the Redpath family.

Similarly, pictures of landscapes or houses may have been taken at a moment carefully chosen to look romantic, or even the opposite: dismal. Famous housing reformers such as Jacob Riis, for example, shot the interiors of poor people’s houses in New York to emphasize their desperate living conditions. Historians today believe that he may have made the houses look even worse than they actually were. The work of Notman and Riis exemplifies why historians must use caution when using photographs as sources.

Photographs and paintings are often preserved in archival and museum collections, because of their value as historic documents. Many of the images of the Redpath family and house are drawn from the McCord Museum and McGill University in Montreal.