At the 1978 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Nashville, Tennessee, Walter Rundell, Jr. delivered a unique presidential address.  Perhaps this came from the fact that Rundell was the only non-archivist to be elected SAA president.  His career was as a university history professor, which frequently took him to archives to conduct research.  His obituary that ran in Spring 1983 issue of the American Archivist included several telling comments to explain the logic of having a historian as president:

“In his mind, if archivists regarded themselves only as technicians and took no scholarly interest in the records they kept, the result would be bad for archives, harmful for history, and in the end, would disserve society as a whole. . . . Walter’s great contribution to the archival profession was his work to break barriers that had grown up between archivists and historians, to encourage archivists to view their profession as one of learning, as well as technique, and to foster communication through the warmth and wisdom of his personality” (244).

His presidential address was published in the October 1978 issue of the American Archivist.  It included 14 photographs, so I wonder if there were slides to accompany the delivery of his address.

Having recently published Early Texas Oil, in which he incorporated extensive photographic evidence, Rundell focused his address on the use of photographs as historical evidence.  He began by tracing the development of photographs as records, with both archivists and historians being slow to recognize them as original sources.  He offered several reasons for a changed to this attitude:

  1. the work of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression and the Office of War Information during World War II, creating a pictorial record of these eras in U.S. history
  2. the establishment of the Still Pictures Branch at the National Archives
  3. the publication of You Have Seen Their Faces, by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White (1937), and Let Us Not Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans (1941) — which “pioneered in demonstrating that photographs, combined with illuminating and supportive texts, could explain human experience in ways that words alone could not” (374)

Rundell explained some considerations in using photographs as historical evidence:

  • “Photographs must be considered an integral part of the evidence, not just illustrations” (375).
  • photographs require captions for comprehensibility
  • photographic research must precede the writing of the text because it will necessarily shape the project
  • “knowledge of the terrain is especially important in photographic research, for it provides an understanding of the authenticity of photographs, as well as the erroneous labeling frequently encountered” (377)
  • research should begin at large repositories because small collections offer too narrow a perspective

Rundell then enumerated some questions that the photographic researcher should bring to a project:

  1. How does an individual photograph relate to the broader body of work on a given topic?
  2. What is the historical value of the photograph?  Are there “optical distortions” or “artistic vision” that were imposed on the photograph by the photographer?
  3. What is the pictorial quality of the image?
  4. How can the researcher narrow down the vast array of images available?  And at the same time, where are the unexpected places to look for relevant photographs in repositories with “unsystematic collection patterns” (390)?
  5. How can the researcher keep track of which photograph has been requested from which repository (because prints are often duplicated between archives)?
  6. How can photographs be reliably identified — because a researcher should take a “skeptical attitude” toward the information recorded by the photographer or the printer?

Rundell concluded with this analysis:

“After the advent of the camera, however, everyone could have a first- rather than second-hand impression of the world about him through photographs.  Quickly photographs became a common means of conveying experience; but scholars only slowly perceived their informational importance.  Surely no longer should reservations exist about the use of photographs as historical evidence.  The challenge now is to exploit them skillfully” (398).