I’ve mentioned that I’m a photo historian, right? Like, I’ve been trained to ask questions of photographs, some of them unanswerable.
Last year, I acquired a small lot of snapshots from Paris. The seller didn’t give much specific information, just that they were Paris in the 1940s. I thought that these might have more information in them than I was initially told, and I was right, though I couldn’t have imagined what the pictures ultimately revealed!
These provide excellent object lessons in performing photo research that you can apply to your own photos, perhaps of unknown people, places, or events!
The majority of the photos in the lot are some or all of these three friends, living the glam life. The first thing I wanted to establish is are these women Parisians or tourists?
One way to infer they are tourists is that they are posing in front of monuments in so many of the photos. Were these Parisian women, we might see other parts of the city, maybe more neighborhood scenes, or just non-monumental spaces in general.
For instance, I can confidently say we would never see a group of Parisian women posing mournfully in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
So, they’re tourists. From where? The inscriptions help with this. Only a few of the photos have anything written on them at all, and most of them are only years.
Two photos of the bunch have other abbreviations. Okt and Dez. Definitely not French for October and December—German!
Now we know we have some glam German ladies touring Paris between 1942 and 1943….right in the middle of the Nazi occupation of the city.
Once I pieced that together, this photo started giving me some serious Hitler in Paris vibes.
All of which made me look even closer at this photo, that initially seemed the least striking of the group. It’s one of two in the lot that is simply a street view without one of the ladies in it. It’s inscribed “Champs d’Elysées” [sic].
Even if you don’t know Paris, you know the Champs Elysées. We usually see it represented like this, even by tourists:
This picture begs the question: what is happening on the Champs Elysées that made the German tourists want to photograph it?
It’s a parade, which in and of itself is not unusual. The Champs Elysées is one of the Grand Boulevards of Paris and numerous parades take this route. In this picture the parade is passing, but nobody on the street could care any less! They are definitely not there to watch it, they’re just going about their business.
One final search of the keywords “German occupation,” “parade,” and “Champs Elysées,” and I learned that throughout the 4 years of occupation, a Nazi military band paraded down the Champs Elysées from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde at noon daily. Wow.
A high-resolution scan of the photo clearly shows the tubas and drums in the band.
So, what I really acquired was not just “Paris in the 1940s.” It is a group of German women in Paris during the Nazi Occupation, including rare documentation of the daily musician’s parade. Pretty cool, right?
Photo research happens first and foremost by looking closely. You can do the same with your photos to possibly put names to long anonymous faces. Look for clues in the background of your pictures. Use what information is written on the backs of the pictures to help you along in your research. You’ll be revealing information about your photos before you know it!