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Musings on Interpretation

The guiding principles of MI are highlighted in our motto: Showcase. Interpret. Preserve.

I added these words to the masthead with a specific purpose in mind: To be a credo for the collectors who look after these images before passing them along to the next caretaker. Those who follow the credo do so for the betterment of the collecting community and for history.

Each principle in the credo possesses equal value and importance.

Here, I want to focus on one principle—Interpret. You’ll find its subtle presence in every feature and column in this publication.

How does interpretation happen and why?

When we tap into the accumulated knowledge of students of Civil War photography, we are interpreting.

When we climb with anticipation down research rabbit holes, we are interpreting.

When we walk battlefields to stand where those pictured in faded photographs stood, and visit the hallowed grounds where their remains rest, we are interpreting.

A spirit of exploration and discovery, and for truth seeking, drives these acts. These acts help us to see these imperfect beings in all their contradictions as they struggled to make a more perfect Union. They confronted uncertain times, when the experiment of government by the people faced grave danger, and the Constitution that girded it in jeopardy.

The best image interpretation is thoughtful and meticulously researched. It brings the persons portrayed in the ambrotypes, cartes de visite, tintypes and other formats to life. It sheds light on our history and who we are as a people. It reflects past triumphs and tragedy, joys and sorrows.

Interpretation is a history-powered prism through which we can study our modern society. It reflects relevance, which can help us make sense of our contemporary world.

Over the past year, the centuries-old struggle for racial equality has again reached a boiling point. Long-standing monuments and memorials have been removed or relocated, and proposals offered for what should be erected in their place. Political and civil discourse is at a low ebb. Critics across the ideological spectrum question the teaching of American history in school.

Studying old photos alone will not bind the nation’s divisions. But they offer a key to keeping the Civil War era relevant to future generations. They can, with fair and balanced interpretation, add nuance to our understanding of the world we inherited from those peering back at us.

As you pore over old photographs here, and stare into the eyes of the soldiers, sailors and civilians, remember that their stories are a bridge that connects the past to the present.

Ronald S. Coddington, Editor & Publisher

LEARN MORE about the other two words in MI‘s motto, Showcase and Preserve.

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