During his sojourn on earth man leaves traces behind. Subsequent generations can
follow these traces through research in order to find out more about his forebears. The
term document can be interpreted much wider than referring to written material so that
different types of material can serve as source from which this knowledge can be
drawn. Pictorial sources is one subsection underneath which photographic material in
This study looks at the use of historical photographs as source from which the cultural
historian can draw information .. Historical photographs are often merely seen and used
as illustration material while they are sources in own right. It is the only source which
captures and eternalises a moment in time visually.
Unfortunately it is still a human with all his faults and deficiencies who stands behind
the camera. That means that although the photograph as source is generally speaking
very reliable and objective, historical criticism still has to be applied. To err is human,
over and above wilful misrepresentation. Furthermore there are certain pitfalls and
limitations inherent to the photograph.
At the Sammy Marks Museum just east of Pretoria, a large collection of photographs
has been preserved which shows the everyday life of the Marks family over a long
period of time. By examining these photographs a clear picture can be formed of the
everyday life of a well-to-do Victorian family in the Transvaal during the period 1890
to 1920. The actual images captured by the camera tell the story of these people's weal
and woe like words cannot do.
No source can be all-revealing .on its own. The photographs and the information drawn
from them, are supported and confirmed by references and quotations from the personal
correspondence of the family of which much has also been preserved. It is kept at the
University of Cape Town. The biography of Sammy Marks by Richard Mendelsohn
(Cape Town, 1991) as well as other literary sources has been studied and applied.
The study also contains a broad background sketch of the period and its spirit. By
making comparisons between the findings about the lives of Sammy Marks and his
family and what is known generally about the people of the time, one can see to what
degree they conformed or differed. The development of photography itself is also.
briefly discussed. The historical photographs which were preserved by the Marks family, serve as
example of how valuable such photographs are for our knowledge and the eventual
reconstruction of the past. Without them the task of the physical restoration of the
house, outbuildings and garden to their original shape would have been much more
difficult. At the same time and even more important, they breathe life into the house
through the information they contain about the people who used to inhabit it.