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The Secret Life of Photographs

Posted on October 31, 2023, by Angela Selter

I bet that at some point you have looked at an unlabeled photograph and wondered about what exactly its story might be. The classic who, what, when, where, and why are all common questions while considering an image. Within that curious wondering, there’s a mystery to solve or perhaps a fictional story to be written; photographs can be immensely creative and compelling in that way. They may also be more documentary in nature, easily revealing the story even without a caption to explain; those particular images defy written language and can become icons in the wordless telling of history. The beauty of photographs is that they’re created by a person and contain that individual’s perspective but upon the viewing of that image, an entirely different narrative may arise. Photographs have a sneaky way of doing much more than giving us a simple snapshot of time to be taken at face value; creative and documentary images each have the power to teach, remind, transport, and connect us—the viewers—to each other and to the larger world around us.

Black and white photo of the shadow of a leafy tree on the siding of a building.
Detail of a building at Loretto Motherhouse, June 1983, photographer unknown

My principal concern is to challenge photographers to document, in mixed media if they wish, or even just record, in still photographs as well as film and video, our present quality of life, the causes of the present malaise in our society—and the world—the evidences of it.

Marion Post Wolcott

Wolcott’s depression-era photography provided a valuable view into 1930s America and is still relevant today in discussions of US history. Past, present, and future photography in the Loretto Heritage Center Archives provides the same—a peek into a world not often seen by people outside of the Loretto community.

While working with the photography collection in the Archives, we see many viewpoints. There’s an entire world to explore there: aesthetically pleasing views, scenes documenting a specific time, place or event, and countless faces of the past to consider. In each case, someone thought it important to record who or what they found around them or how they felt at that exact moment in time. When the Archives staff digitizes and uploads these images, we also add information to the file. Sometimes we find writing on the fronts or backs of the images, or within the scrapbook or photo album from which they came. We include this information exactly as written (including typos, misspellings, and incorrect information) to the electronic record and we add #hashtags to help the images be found when searched for. One thing we don’t do is add our perspective—it’s our job to record, document, and preserve without expressing opinion or speculation, leaving the image free to be translated by the viewer.

A stone path bordered by dew-covered plants leads downhill and disappears into trees and mist.
Path from Badin Pond/Grotto to front drive, Loretto Motherhouse, May 1994, photographer unknown

To the complaint, “There are no people in these photographs,” I respond, “There are always two people: the photographer and the viewer.”

Ansel Adams

A friend recently asked me why we save, catalog, and digitize materials and why did I think that this history was important. Her questions caused me to ponder and here’s a bit of what I came up with…

In my opinion, one of the chief values of the Loretto Heritage Center is that we are presenting this niche of local history to the public while also inviting others to share theirs, uniting us as individuals and communities. Local histories help shape who we are and how we think about the world around us; learning about a region’s past can change the way we think about the present and future. It’s not so much about looking back and longing for “the good old days” as much as it’s about being informed by the past in order to create a vibrant future. The sharing of our global, local, public, and private histories helps to gather us all together on common ground—when we listen and really hear the stories of others we can almost always find a similar experience within ourselves, then boom! we’re instantly connected and our world has expanded a bit more. From there, we can deepen relationships, collaborate, and define common goals. As a photography enthusiast, I advocate the preservation of the media for artistic as well as historical purposes. Since its very beginning, photography has given us a tool to help build a collective archive of human experience and those of us at Loretto Heritage Center are grateful to have the opportunity to participate in that.

Black and white archival photo of three habited nuns walking out from a bank of tall trees into farmland.
Cover photo for Loretto Magazine, c.1955, photographer unknown

Far too often, people think of themselves as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu
Angela Selter

Angela Selter

Angela is an Archival Assistant at the Loretto Heritage Center. A former longtime employee of Kentucky’s public library system, she is an advocate for non-censorship and intellectual freedom for all. In her spare time, she enjoys horses, the arts, early Kentucky history, food histories, and hiking.
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  1. Avatar Roberta Hudlow, SL on November 19, 2023 at 12:37 pm

    The beautiful walkway near the pond is so beautiful. It would be lovely enlarged and framed. I took a photo of this walkway garden as Sister Loretto Ann was working in it. I did an 8-by10 print and gave it to her. After she died Sister Rose Alma found it. I mentioned to her of taking a picture of Sister Loretto Ann, and she said she found the photo tucked away somewhere; she never showed it to anyone.

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Loretto welcomes you

Learn more or plan a visit to the Motherhouse!