Can You Spot the Differences?

Published:April 7, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Last week, Brendan shared a haunting photo of a bridge near Farmville, Virginia. As cataloging and sharing old photos is to some extent my chief responsibility around here, the photo—and its source, the photoblog Shorpy—immediately piqued my curiosity.

First, I wanted to know something about the provenance of the photograph. Knowing little about Shorpy, and unable to discern much from their website, I couldn’t figure out whether they had grabbed the photo from a public digital archive—in this instance, it would most likely be the Prints & Photographs Collection at the Library of Congress (LOC)—or whether Shorpy had come across a physical print of the photo and scanned it themselves. Shorpy gives us some information in caption:

April 1865. “Farmville, Virginia, vicinity. High bridge of the South Side Railroad across the Appomattox.” From photographs of the main Eastern theater of war, the siege of Petersburg, June 1864–April 1865. Wet collodion glass plate negative, left half of stereograph pair, by Timothy H. O’Sullivan; from Civil War photographs compiled by Hirst Milhollen and Donald Mugridge.

Unfortunately, while that caption gives us quite a bit of information about the original context in which the photograph was taken, it doesn’t do much for the researcher (e.g. Yours Truly) who’d like to trace it even further. Was that caption information written on the back of a physical print? Or is it taken on faith from some unnamed institution?

My attempts to contact Shorpy went unanswered. Thus, left to my own devices, I took a gamble and started to comb through the LOC archive. Sure enough, it’s not hard to find the original stereograph pair. Here’s the version from Shorpy:

Shorpy's unsourced and sepia-toned photo

And the version from LOC:

Click on each photo to get a closer look. We’ve obviously found the right original photo—the question is, does Shorpy have their hands on a different source print than the one that LOC is using? My best guess is: no. Aside from the sepia tone, both photos share identical dust and scratch marks. Even the chemical patterns around the iris frame are identical. Both of these digital photos come from the same analog source and, unless I’m gravely mistaken, are products of the same original scan. Since the LOC Prints & Photographs digital archive is limited to objects in its physical collection, I have every reason to believe that Shorpy’s copy is the derivative one. (They’ve also taken their caption information almost verbatim from the notes made by the LOC archivist).

The only difference—an immediately obvious one—is the color tone, the sepia. This is a fairly common practice when trying to make vintage photographs and film reels appear to look the part. There might be a setting on your digital camera right now for sepia-tone; it gives any party that old-timey feel. It’s a gimmick, but a compelling one, and contributes to Shorpy’s overall charm and effectiveness.

I won’t chide for the ersatz-colorization. Those photos are in the public domain (by a hefty margin) and anyone is free to do with them as they please. But I would gently suggest that those of us who are in the habit of republishing and reusing public domain materials have some obligation to document our research as much as possible. LOC suggests a credit line for objects in the Civil War Photographs Collection, as it does for all of its collections, and the Encyclopedia tries to follow that style consistently. Not only is it a courtesy to the folks who have put substantial time and effort into making that material available, but it’s also a favor to researchers and historians to come.

(One final thought: one might suspect that the reason Shorpy doesn’t give LOC proper credit is that both are in the business of selling physical prints of these photos, and Shorpy’s got to make a living. I respect that. But I’m skeptical that there could be much competition: at Shorpy, I can buy an 8×10 glossy print of that photo for $10, pay online with a credit card, and have it in my hands in no time. Anyone who’s ever ordered a print from LOC can testify that it is neither that cheap nor that convenient.)


5 Comments on “Can You Spot the Differences?”

  1. Sarah G.

    I had never given much thought to historical pictures found on websites before–really interesting to think that images can be so easily manipulated and can come from such a variety of sources. Good detective work!

  2. Karen

    I just emailed Shorpy to ask about rights usage, and they quoted me $250 per image for high-res. I find that outrageous considering the original source of their images are either Library of congress or user-contributed. I too appreciate their need to make a buck for prints; but to ask $250 for an image that is in the public domain is unethical at best and illegal at worst.

  3. Brendan Wolfe


    Mine is by no means an expert opinion, but my best guess is that Shorpy has a right to charge you for use of photos that they manipulate in some way. So you’re paying for their sepia tone or whatever. If it’s an LOC image, then you can go to the Library of Congress website and download the original and, if you are inclined and have the tools, manipulate it yourself.

    I do understand your frustration, though. And thanks for the comment.

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