Is this Chinook Point??? Sketch of an unidentified coastal village by James Swan, ca. 1853. Image 1908335 is held at the Beinecke Library

Not every historic document is a text. Images of the past are plentiful, whether preserved in paintings, drawings or photographs. Historic Chinookan images include pencil drawings and paintings from 19th century travelers and visitors like George Catlin, George Gibbs, and James Swan, as well as staged photographs by Edward Curtis and others. Later images include prints and snapshots of family, community, and tribal gatherings by professional and informal photographers. Such images often contain details that the written record ignores or omits.

When reviewing historic sketches, paintings, or images of Chinookan people, keep these questions in mind:

  • Who created this image and what do I know about the artist or photographer?
  • What relationship did the artist or photographer have with the Chinook?
  • When was the image created?
  • What location does the image represent?
  • Was the image created onsite or after the fact?
  • Where, how, and by whom has the image been preserved?
  • Has it been altered in any way?

It is important for historians to remember that even something as seemingly objective as a photograph is influenced by a point of view. A family album tells a different story than a local newspaper, for instance. Photographs may be candid, posed, or something in between. These images record subjects the photographer chooses by virtue of deciding where to stand, where to focus, and what is included. The camera captures representations based on where it points; thus, even unposed images reflect individual choices and historic context. While examining an image, the historian also looks for information that the photographer did not notice. Sometimes scratches on doors or mud on boots can give us clues about how people lived and worked in particular times and places.

In addition to the questions raised above, while looking at the following images, be sure to ask:

  • Is this picture candid or posed?
  • Who or what is the subject of the photo and how are they presented?
  • What is the focal point, and how is the picture framed?
  • What is the significance of the items in the picture?
  • How old is the picture, what kind of technology was used to take it?
  • What are some artistic aspects of the picture, was the picture edited, staged, or otherwise manipulated?
  • What does the caption tell you and what information is lacking?
  • What questions does the image or caption raise?
  • What kinds of sources might help you to answer additional questions?

See below to practice Reading the Record with Photographs. Then, check out “Images” in the Resources Section.

Chief George A. Charley

Source: Chief George A. Charley on the front cover of The Sou’Wester, Volume 1, No. 3 (Autumn 1966). Published by the Pacific County Historical Society, State of Washington.

Caption as it appeared in the Sou’Wester: “Chief George A. Charley is pictured in ceremonial head-dress and holding the hand-forged knife inherited from his father, ‘Lighthouse’ Charley Ma-Tote, who said it was a gift from Captain Robert Gray. He early exhibited the traits which marked him as a leader of men, and performed many deeds of valour [sic] in assisting the North Cove Life Saving Service.”

The Clam Diggers

Source: The Clam Diggers, ca. 1894. Image LC#USZ62-51065 courtesy of Library of Congress

Caption from the Library of Congress: “Two elderly Indian women at doorway of building, with small pile or cluster of clams and poles and sacks, circa 1894.”

Tokeland School


Source: Tokeland School, 1928-29. Image pchs 4-15-88-1 courtesy of the Pacific County Historical Society

Caption: “This group of Tokeland students in the 1928-1929 school year includes Native children.”

Native People of Bay Center

Source: Native People of Bay Center, n.d. Image #45 courtesy of Appelo Archives

Caption from Appelo Archives: “Thirteen Bay Center Indians pose nicely-dressed for a photo. An old man and two older women sit in front with the young children, and a girl with young to middle-aged women stand in back.”