The Power behind Archival Photos

STOP. If you haven’t seen the movie Wonder Woman, I suggest you cease reading this post and immediately go see it! Oh my goodness . . . it was so good! And this is coming from someone who only has a moderate interest in superhero action movies. In fact, I have been surprising myself with my enthusiasm for this film. My interest, however, is not so much rooted in the fighting, superpowers, or the infamous “lasso of truth.” I love this movie because the entire plot begins with an archival photograph.

I do not want this post to be a spoiler, so I will refrain from describing the significance of the archival photograph that is featured in the film. I do, however, want to use Wonder Woman as a platform to discuss the magic and mystery that lies within photographic archives. It’s a common saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” This phrase is pretty cliché, but I think it’s true in many ways. Photographs communicate much more than we can put into words. Through a single image, they help us understand people, places, historical context, emotion, circumstances, and life stories. The fictional photograph in Wonder Woman was taken during WWI, which is already super cool. But it’s not until you get at least halfway into the movie that you realize why this photo was taken and how incredibly significant it is to the plot.

Okay, enough about Wonder Woman before I actually start to spoil it for you! What I’m really trying to say is that archival photographs evince a moment in time. They do this through the image they portray, but also by their format. In fact, sometimes knowing the format of a photograph is the only way to actually date the photograph at all. Here’s a little history lesson for ya. . .

In 1839, the first form of photography was developed. These photographs were called daguerreotypes, named for their creator – Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. From there, we embarked on a long journey of photographic processes that included uncoated paper processes, collodion emulsions, albumen emulsions, gelatin emulsions, photomechanical processes, color processes, and digital photographs, just to summarize. Understanding how photographic processes fit into history is essential for accurate photographic identification.

Let me be real . . . identifying photographs based on their type and process is one of the HARDEST things I am learning to do as an archivist. I feel like I never get it right. In fact, I’m not even sure if the archival photo in Wonder Woman is consistent with popular photographic processes in 1918 (I’m thinking the process would have been some type of gelatin print?). Nonetheless, I’m determined to continue learning and sharpening my skills. I recently signed up for some awesome FREE webinars hosted by the Image Permanence Institute. These webinars are all about identifying photographic processes: There may still be room to register, so if you’re interested, go for it! Also, the Image Permanence Institute has a grant to host a series of FREE three-day workshops totally focused on photograph identification ( The processing archivist at my job was selected to go to the seminar in Atlanta! I’m so happy for him. All of the 2017 workshops are closed, but there are still five more that will be offered in 2018. Y’all. . . I want to go so badly. I think I may end up applying for one next year.

In a nutshell, archival photographs are amazing. They allow us to experience and confront the past in ways that were simply unprecedented prior to the nineteenth century. Even if you are not an archivist who gets to be around these things all day, I encourage you to search for archival photographs in your home! You may be surprised at the story that lies behind one image.


This is the archival photo featured in Wonder Woman. So cool! 

Recommended resource: Photographs: Archival Care and Management by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler & Diane Vogt O’Connor