Mining Photographs: Unearthing the Meanings of Historical Photos

An earlier version of this article appeared as:

Eric Margolis, “Mining Photographs: Unearthing the Meanings of Historical Photos,” Radical History Review 40 (1988), pp. 32-48. Copyright (1988), MARHO, the Radical Historian’s Organization. All rights reserved. Posted by permission of Duke University Press. This material may be saved or photocopied for personal use but may not be otherwise reproduced, stored or transmitted by any medium without explicit permission. Any alteration to or republication of this material is expressly forbidden. Please direct permissions inquiries to: Permissions Officer, Box 90660, Durham, NC 27708, USA; or fax 919.688.3524.


In April 1914, the Ludlow tent colony was burned by the Colorado militia.  Photo 1 shows the cellar where two women and eleven miners’ children suffocated. There is something eerie about the stark white hand emerging from the “death hole.” When I first saw the hand reaching out of the blackness, I took it as a visual metaphor for the Ludlow victims. The photo had been reproduced in several works on the United Mine Workers’ strike, but in most of the reproductions the head of the person in the hole was obscured. In the course of my research on western miners, however, I stumbled upon an original print in which the outline of the hat of a militiaman was plainly visible. I was shocked. The image was no innocent victim reaching for mercy but was instead a photograph of one of the butchers demonstrating the depth of the cellar. Photo 2 This photograph is one of a series taken while the Red Cross searched the ruins under the watchful eyes of the militia. It was taken to record the consequences of an event, to document the dimensions of the cellar-turned-grave. Only later, when the photograph was reprinted, did it acquire its metaphoric meaning. The literal effort to show human scale was converted into a dramatic measure of inhumanity.

The death hole shot illustrates one of the technical problems in the documentary use of historical photographs. Frequently, the original is lost or withheld from view and only copies are available for study. Copies can alter the meaning of the original photo. Researchers interested in using photos to study history ideally need to examine both the original negative and a first generation print. Given the range of possible darkroom manipulations, the original negative may reveal how the print was made. A first generation print likewise can reveal the photographer’s intention, although the preserved photograph may not always represent the image printed by the photographer. Photos fade or become damaged over time.

The 1913-14 Colorado coal strike was photographed more than any other single event in the history of coal mining. Several hundred photographs depict the events of the strike directly; many hundreds of other images portray miners and mine communities in the ‘teens. These photographs were preserved in a wide variety of public and private collections. Vivid photographs accompany almost every book or article that has been written on Ludlow. Used in this way, the photographs themselves are not especially problematic; they merely serve to reinforce a fundamentally verbal argument. They assert the reality of the discussed events, giving a sense of “being there.” The viewer is expected to project himself or herself into the photograph, not to wonder about the intentions or assumptions of the photographer, or about the immediate context of the photograph.

For such positivist or narrative purposes, historians are primarily interested in the illustrative power of a photograph: “Will it work to convince the viewer?” To the social historian or ethnographer seeking to use photographs as historical documents or cultural artifacts, however, photographs pose a different question: “What is it that we are actually looking at?” Cultural and semiotic analysis problematizes photographs by asking the impatient storyteller within every historian a series of questions: Who took the photograph and why? What are the assumptions of framing, timing and focus? Why was the photograph preserved? These, at least, were the questions that arose for me in evaluating the photographic evidence of the 1913-14 Colorado coal strike. This essay addresses some of the pitfalls of photo research, and at the same time conveys the importance of photographs as a source of additional historical information. Photographic evidence has the potential not just to illustrate but to illuminate; historical processes, meanings, ideologies and conflicts can be gleaned from photographic analysis, just as they are generated from the study of written texts.

Allan Sekula’s germinal essay on relations between photography and mining poses the central question for those interested in understanding and using historical photographs: “How is historical and social memory preserved, transformed, restricted and obliterated by photographs?” Having raised the question, Sekula warns that “photography constructs an imaginary world and passes it off as reality.” He draws attention to some of the sources of error and misrepresentations in the collections of historic mining photographs. He also mentions the false assumptions that photographs “transmit truths,” “reflect reality,” or are “historical documents.” “The very term ‘document,'” explains Sekula, “entails a notion of legal or official truth, as well as a notion of proximity to and verification of an original event.”[1]

Perhaps it is time for historians and social scientists to add photographs to the well known list that includes “lies, damn lies and statistics.” When photography was young, people were impressed by the technology’s ability to reproduce images of things in the world. Since that time we have been bombarded by photographic images contrived to make us believe this or buy that. Today, most people are aware that the camera lies while it tells the truth. Like statistical representations selected to support someone’s vision of reality, photographic representations are shaped by the photographer, who chooses equipment, selects the direction in which the lens is pointed and decides when to release the shutter.

Photographic evidence is persuasive and powerful. Roland Barthes and others have observed that photographs function as indexical expressions, signs that we take to be causally related to the objects that they reflect. It is for this reason that, while they cannot be accepted, strictly speaking, as “proof” of the existence of the reflected object, photographs tend to overpower our critical faculties and our ability to question the image before us. Moreover, even in the case of documentary photography, there is always a tension between the requirements of artistic representation and the goal of accurate depiction. As Theodor Adorno once pointed out, the requirements of photographic “style” introduce an element of untruth “even in the admirable expertise of a photograph of a peasant’s squalid hut.”[2]
Sekula’s analysis of historic photographs draws attention to the fact that the viewer is confronted by the appearance of history itself.[3] Although this is a provocative philosophical critique, it neglects that fact that we also take written documents-the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights-as the appearance of history itself, subjecting them to as powerful a fetishism as that of images. Nevertheless, while historians should not naively use photographs to contextualize their narrative, neither should they adopt a cynical postmodernist attitude and shy away from using photographs entirely.

Photographs and written texts cannot be read or situated in identical ways. In fact, the meaning of a particular photograph typically is generated as much by the context in which it is found-site, collection, date, photographer, caption-as by the image itself. Certainly there are conventions at work within photographic images. We learned early to read the visual world in terms of the natural setting, the built environment, body language and facial expressions; photographic images have emotional content and meaning beyond our ability to describe verbally. Visual knowledge cannot be reduced to verbal description-and vice versa. Thus, photographs of vanished coal communities contain a vision of the coal miners’ lives and struggles that is missing in the millions of words published on the topic. Photographs add another dimension; they show us things about existence that words and narrative can only sketch, analyze, describe, gloss over or romanticize. This is not to argue that photographs do not, by themselves, have the same ability to mislead, misrepresent, romanticize or dramatize as do words; they just do it differently. The grammar and syntax of photographic images are not interchangeable with that of prose.

Photographs meet all the commonly accepted tenets to be considered “primary source material” by historians and “cultural artifacts” by archaeologists and anthropologists. The question, then, is not whether to use photographs in historic research, but how to use them. Using photographs as primary source material requires gathering data about both the photograph and the social historical context within which it is embedded. One must discover something about why a picture was made, who made it and how it was made. Was it a candid shot or was it staged? Is it a “trick?” Was it taken for purposes of propaganda? As a documentary, advertisement, snapshot, corporate record, or even as a joke? It is also instructive to consider why and how the photo came to be preserved. Before the investigator can guess what the photograph depicts, or what it means, the answers to these and other questions must inform his or her understanding.

Working with photographs as cultural artifacts raises a set of technical problems whose solution requires an understanding of both words and images. While a detailed study of the image is necessary, it is not by itself sufficient. One of the researcher’s first tasks is to discover whether documentary material about the photo is available; the collection, the photographer’s name, the geographic location, the date of the photo and similar information aid in comprehending and interpreting the image. There may also be captions and other descriptive information about the shot. In examining material from personal collections, it is sometimes possible to gather this data by interviewing the owners.


The Ludlow photographs that survive represent only a small sample of those originally taken. Many prints were culled intentionally, for artistic, social or political purposes. Others were destroyed at random by floods and fires-what Marx termed “the gnawing criticism of the mice.” Soon after the strike, however, photographs began to be recognized as historically important and were preserved. In contrast, there are almost no photographs of the bloody miners’ strike of 1903, and none at all from minor strikes in 1919 and 1922.

Information about a collection-why it was compiled and preserved-helps in reconstructing the intentions behind the pictures. In the case of Ludlow, photographic archives were kept by the two main coal companies in the field: the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company and the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I). Adolph Germer and Edward Doyle, UMWA organizers at the time, both had extensive scrapbooks. Some of the most professionally shot photographs were the work of Lou Dold, a freelance photographer in Trinidad, the largest town in the southern Colorado coal field. There were additional collections at the Pioneer museum in Trinidad.

The primary collections were preserved for different purposes: as a documentary record of corporate activities, for personal edification, as a business and for historic preservation. While these images do not provide a complete record of the strike or capture the range of economic and social relations in the coal camps, taken together they tend to cancel each other’s deficiencies and offer a composite view of the struggle.

Over the ensuing decades these collections have been acquired by libraries and other archives. There are two main “preservatories” in Colorado, the Denver Public Library and the State Historical Society. Both these institutions provide copy prints for a fee and charge additional fees for use or publication. They also actively seek to enlarge their collections through acquisitions. In the large “preservatory” the meanings of the individual collections tend to be submerged. As Sekula has observed, ownership of photographs or photographic archives, and their subsequent manipulation or sale, can have important ramifications for historians and photo researchers:

. . .not only are the pictures in archives often literally for sale, but their meanings are up for grabs .... This semantic availability of pictures in archives exhibits the same abstract logic as that which characterizes goods on the marketplace.[4]

Thus, for a television documentary on Ludlow.[5]  I was able to purchase the images and thereby acquired the right to interpret them as I saw fit.[6]  For instance, company photos could be used to demonstrate the exploitation of workers, or the union photographer’s work to depict violence by strikers. In the archive photos are transformed into commodities; exchange value replaces use value, and this in turn raises a fundamental problem for historical investigation. In Sekula’s words, “. . .archives establish a relation of abstract visual equivalence between pictures.”[7]  The researcher, confronted by an undifferentiated sequence of images, establishes criteria for analyzing, evaluating, selecting and recontextualizing the photographs. The criteria might be explicit or implicit; stylistic, artistic, temporal or categorical; based on subject matter, photographer, owner or, for that matter, price.
Photographs reflect the struggle over the definition of the miners’ lives. Photos 3 4, and  5 are typical of several hundred collected by A. R Mitchell, a Trinidad artist. They portray squalid conditions that were common in early coal camps, when miners built their own houses and paid ground rent to the company. The images Mitchell collected contrast vividly with the kind made by company photographers. Photos  6 7 8, portray the company housing of the “model” coal camp. Actually, both types of housing existed side by side. Only large companies built modern housing, and even in the larger camps, shack towns accommodated the increased population during booms.

The Mitchell collection has been absorbed by the State Historical Society, but its history contributes to an understanding of the images. Arthur Roy Mitchell came from a pioneer Trinidad family. He was a western artist who made a good living painting covers for pulp westerns. Along with other members of Trinidad’s bourgeoisie, “Mitch” felt strongly that too much attention was paid to coal miners, and especially to Ludlow. For years he ran the Pioneer Museum, acquiring artifacts relating to the farming and ranching history of the area. During his tenure there were no exhibits of mining history. He had privately been collecting photographs of miners, however, and after his death his sister returned a box of photographs to the museum

While he didn’t take the photographs, Mitchell’s selection was guided by an artist’s keen eye for composition. The collection is unified by a sophisticated documentary-almost ethnographic-style. Although the pictures were not made to expose social ills, they are clearly in the stylistic tradition of Jacob Riis. Dating from the turn of the century, they look remarkably modern, more like Farm Security Administration photos than the typical work of Colorado photographers. Miners of many nationalities are represented: Italians, Slavs, Mexicans, Blacks and Greeks. Mitchell’s photos of ramshackle slums are antithetical to the geometrical rows of modern housing in company photographs.

CF&I maintained an extensive photographic archive that depicts planned communities. Taken by company photographers, they record CF&I property and equipment. People seem to appear only accidentally. These pictures exemplify the long tradition of certain kinds of images produced by mine owners. As early as the mid-sixteenth century, mining images reflected and reproduced the industry’s subordinate-superordinate power relations.[8]  Among the CF&I photos are a number of large panoramas of coal towns made by a Colorado photographer named Fromm. The long photos were taken with a “circut camera” that used a clockwork drive to pan the camera from right to left, while a roll of negatives was exposed one section at a time. The panoramas were made by contact printing the negatives. The photographer had to be a skilled professional. The equipment was expensive, as was the film and processing. Generally, then, only large corporations could afford this kind of documentation.
Panoramas are notable because they provide an appreciation for the landscape, scope and layout of the physical plant as well as the relationship between the various structures. At the same time, the size of the photographs mirrors the awesome power of the CF&I, which in 1910 employed ten per cent of Colorado’s population. The high-tech panoramas reflect a corporate vision of the “model” company town, the planned community run by and for the benefit of the coal corporation. Circut cameras were also used to make crew photographs. Entire shifts were portrayed in front of the mine portal-another example of company property. Thus the panoramas embodied the three necessary elements of production-land, labor and capital. They recapitulated the power relations of the coal community. [Photo 10]


Ever since Heisenberg unveiled the “uncertainty principle” in physics, it has been clear that the scientific observer is part of the experimental situation. Throughout the last few decades critical theorists have emphasized the extent to which the historian is an historical actor and the sociologist a part of social life. The photographer, too, cannot be other than a member of society, and is a part of the photograph.

The photographer’s spatial and temporal location and access to subjects, their political perspective, social class, ethnicity, race, gender, attitudes and values circumscribe, define and determine what she or he will focus on. Moreover, the photographer’s presence is usually felt by the subjects. Awareness can usually be read in the subject’s body language and facial expression; occasionally the shadow of the photographer actually falls on the scene and becomes part of the image. To understand a particular image or an entire ouevre requires knowledge about the photographer.

Lou Dold, a freelance photographer working in Trinidad during the strike, sold his photographs to newspapers and the wire services. He was a skilled professional whose style is clearly recognizable. Dold left a moving series of photos of the tent colony, miners and strike events. But despite his sympathies with miners, he had access to the Colorado National Guard as well. The strike zone was under martial law, and there are many photographs that could only have been made with permission from the military authorities. Militia officers posed on a regular basis; we see them arrayed around the flag, galloping full tilt past the Ludlow depot and, most revealingly, firing their light machine guns in target practice. [Photo 11]

In addition to these obviously staged photographs, Dold shot several critical events, including the arrival of the National Guard at the Trinidad railroad yard where they unloaded field artillery from flat cars, a picket march led by Mother Jones, the “Women’s March” when hundreds of women and children paraded through Trinidad demanding that Mother Jones be released from military detentionDold even captured the attack by saber-wielding troopers who broke up the march. And he photographed the tent colony at Forbes after the militia destroyed it.

Although he was not at Ludlow during the battle, Dold made a detailed record of the colony before it was destroyed, and afterward he immortalized the ruins in a series of images (like the “death hole”) that raised the nation’s conscience. Partly because of the market for the pictures and partly because of his political sentiments, Dold recorded mostly images of struggle and conflict. His work was picked up by UPI and given wide exposure; it was also reproduced as post cards and circulated by the union for partisan purposes. His photographs have also been published by almost every historian writing on the 1913-14 strike. Dold’s photos contrast vividly with the depopulated pictures made by company photographers and the condescending images collected by Mitchell. They record events or reconstruct acts rather than portraying settings or characters. [Photos 12, 13, 14]


Many photographers provide information by writing on the back of the print, on the image side with pen and ink, or even by scratching captions on the negative. The words may give clues as to what meaning the photographer (or someone else) intended. Captions, however, simultaneously force meanings on the picture that are neither explicitly nor implicitly part of the image. The words overdetermine and legislate meaning, further limiting critical evaluation. The caption exists as a ready made answer to the researcher’s question, “What am I looking at?” Especially for scholars more used to dealing with words than images, a captioned photograph poses peculiar problems in interpretation. Like the photographic image itself, it is possible for captions to lie, mislead or otherwise confuse the issue. Furthermore, it is impossible for a caption to tell the whole truth or to be anything more than a partial abstraction. The view is doubly determined by words and images. In effect, we are told what to see.

A good example of this is a series of photographs taken in Colorado coal camps shortly before the 1913-14 strike by a United Mine Workers organizer named Adolph Germer, who was documenting conditions in preparation for the strike. The photographs are poorly executed snapshots; it is not so much the pictures as the captions that impose a story. Over a long shot of a large frame house with a small doorway and a barely visible man is scrawled “Company boardinghouse, Lyden Colorado. Fellow in the boarding house door is company thug. He asked my business and I told him I was operating a bar in Chicago.” Photo 15 – In this example, the photograph merely validates the caption. Thus we are presented, not so much with a photograph, as with “proof” of an organizer’s experience. What Germer wanted to show could not be photographed, so he added a word portrait of undercover spies and menacing company guards.

Sometimes words are written on the negative so they actually become part of the photo, printed with the image. This seems to have been a typical practice when the large format negative was common. Dold was in the habit of inking captions on his negatives; they appear as white letters on the prints. Under a picture of a group of tents with armed men in the foreground is printed “Camp Beshoar-UMW of A Military Headquarters, Trinidad Colorado.” A landscape of dead mules is titled “After the battle at Southwestern Mine.”

The United Mine Workers’ collection was archived at the University of West Virginia. Most of the images are familiar copies of Lou Dold’s work, but where Dold wrote simple identifications on the bottom of the negatives, this set has had new, explicitly ideological captions penned onto the prints. Photo 16 A picture of the burned tent colony is captioned “Miner’s homes protected by John D’s thugs.” Photo 17 A militia man crouched behind a pile of rubbish posed cocking his rifle, and the caption reads “Gunman waiting his chance to kill school children.” This photograph has had a curious history. In the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University it has no writing on the front, and on the back is typed: “A mine guard armed with a high power rifle from behind a breast work of ruins from the recent Ludlow fire, ready to pick off some of the armed strikers.” The copy from the Denver Post collection at Colorado Historical society has typed on the front: “Trinidad, Colo Miners Strikers War April 1914…One of the striking miners in ambush picking off the militiamen.” On the back is typed: “A striking miner in the Colorado coal district firing on militiamen and mine guards at the Hecla mines near Louisville, CO. Apr. 1914.” I can think of no better example of the way that photographic images function as free floating signifiers that can be given any number of meanings.

In the attempt to contextualize photographs, they must be evaluated carefully against other evidence. The small tent colony at Forbes was eight miles from Ludlow, and was destroyed a month before the attack on Ludlow. Dold made a series of photographs of the destruction at Forbes and captioned them “Forbes tent colony destroyed by the Colorado militia.” Amidst the rubble one tent is standing, surrounded by a group of sad faced people. [Photo 18] The photo appears in the UMW collection with the caption “Typical miner’s family fearlessly facing the guns of the militia.”

In an interview with Emma Zanetell, an eighty-nine-year-old woman who lived at Forbes, I learned a different meaning from this photograph. “That’s my tent,” she exclaimed, “I’m there sick in bed.” The story emerged that, a day or two before the picture was made, she had given birth to twins who died. Her husband and relatives had gone to Trinidad to bury the babies, leaving the tent colony undefended. While they were gone, the militia tore down the tents and burned them. Two soldiers came into Emma’s tent; one told her to get up so they could set fire to her tent. Too sick to move, she overheard the other soldier threaten to kill his companion if he harmed her. Mercy, not fierce determination, explains why Dold’s pictures of Forbes’ destruction show one tent left standing.

The caption to Emma’s tent exemplifies the narrative reflex that photographs frequently invoke. “Typical” and “fearlessly” universalize and valorize a human experience that is, at bottom, individual, non-repeatable and idiosyncratic. The photograph cannot be understood to capture an instantiation of a general working-class struggle. Quite the opposite, the concept of class struggle should be understood as a comprehension of the commonalities of individual experience. In other words, the correct procedure should be to recover the precise particular circumstances of a photograph (a person or event), and then to proceed toward a broader historical and social context. In this endeavor, the tools of ethnography and oral history can sometimes augment the traditional methods of the human sciences.


Confronted by a photograph about which little is known, one can sometimes deduce its meaning through a detailed comprehension of the set and setting-the cultural milieu. This deductive process is fraught with problems, similar to the interpretive problem posed by the photo of Emma Zanetell’s tent. The particular is submerged in a generality and there can be no guarantee of certainty; in some cases it is only possible to describe a detailed but empty location into which the picture fits.

A United Mine Workers official approached me to ask if I was interested in a Ludlow photo that he had hanging in his recreation room [Photo 19]. I said I was, although privately I was sure I had already seen it. It was the tent colony at Ludlow, but not the one I was familiar with. In the foreground was the meager refuse of the burned tents; rows of brand new white tents receded into the distance. The historical importance of Ludlow had already been assured by the tragedy of the massacre when the UMW commissioned Fromm to make this panorama showing both the ruins and the hopeful rows of new tents. The image reflects the union’s determination to prevail over adversity, to continue to strike. The man who owned the photo had no idea of its significance other than as a picture of Ludlow. There was no caption. Only a detailed understanding of the event made the image’s meaning clear.


Photographs are only one part, albeit an important one, of historical and anthropological reconstruction. They capture some things in startling clarity, providing fuel for our imagination and understanding. They give the mind’s eye something to work with. Like all other cultural artifacts they can only be fully comprehended through the processes Clifford Geertz termed thick description. Seeing demands knowledge; it requires us to understand the political economy of the coal industry, the struggle to organize unions, the miners’ work and way of life and the limitations and conventions of photography.

There is much to see in these pictures beyond the details of the actual image. Understanding depends on “hidden” meanings, which only become available when the viewer has access to background information that makes it possible to read the pictures with an increasingly complex and deep recognition. Photos require context to fulfill their potential to inform-every picture does not tell a story.

Photographs can only provide a skeletal image for our imaginations to fill out. These imaginations are professional-sociological, historical, anthropological-and they are informed by other data as well. We flesh out our understanding of social memory with primary source material from informants, with the conventional touchstones of history, such as newspaper accounts, company records, government documents and the like, and with the analytical procedures of our respective disciplines.

To use photographs simply as illustrations is to leave out a valuable and rich possibility. Instead, we might employ them in a method of enrichment, a process of cross reference aiding comprehension of both the epoch and the photograph. At first we hold the image and the context far apart, studying each for its unique features. But through procedures of cross reference, we may come to understand the movement that originally brought them together in the world, the force that made the photograph a product of a particular time and place. In discovering the actual and unique circumstances of the photograph, we come to a deeper and clearer understanding of the era; in broadly comprehending the era, we determine a more precise meaning for the image. The photograph thus becomes rich in significations that go far beyond simple illustration.


[1] –Allan Sekula, “Photography Between Labor and Capital;” in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and Robert Wilkie, eds., Mining Photographs and Other Pictures: A Selection from the Negative Archives of Shedden Studio, Glace Bay, Cape Breton, 1948-1968, (Halifax, Nova Scotia,1983),193,195,198.
[2] –T W Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” abridged from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheime4 Dialectics of Enlightenment, (London, 1973), in James Curran, et. al., eds., Mass Communication and Society, (London, 1977), 356.
[3] –Sekula,198.
[4] –Ibid., 194.
[5] –“Out of the Depths-The Miners’ Story;’ which appeared as an episode of the PBS series A Walk Through the Twentieth Century with Bill Moyers, September 1984
[6] –At least one archive, the Colorado Historical Society, is making an attempt to control the use of historical photographs. They are trying to prevent second generation editorialization by requiring that pictures from their collection be reproduced full frame.
[7] –Sekula,195..
[8] –Ibid., 209
[9] –Interview with Emma Zanetell, Aguilar, Colorado, 1978. Coal Project Collection, Western Historical Collections, University of Colorado, Boulder.
[10] –Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, (New York, 1973).