Sunday, July 25, 2010

Background to the "Kerrville in the Snow" photograph controversy

There’s one idea to keep in mind when you study history, and, though it sounds silly, it really makes a difference. When you’re reading about some pioneer, or some historic figure, you must remember that the person about which you’re studying had no idea he lived a long time ago.
He or she was like us: life is lived in the present. To Joshua Brown, the day he and his band of shingle makers made their first camp here was just a day. It was “now” to him, not a date in the mid-1840s.
I say this because we often put our own assumptions onto historical figures, eras. For example, at the turn of the last century it took over a day to travel from Kerrville to Junction. The road was good, but steep in some places. In other places you crossed streams and riverbeds. We would consider it a very difficult journey. There would be a lot of work involved: getting the horses ready, checking the wagon, loading any freight, loading provisions for the trip, making sure you had equipment for any unexpected contingencies. If a wheel broke, you might spend a few nights out in the open. If your journey had taken place just after the Civil War, and a band of Indians chose to make your passage “difficult,” you might find yourself in a quite frightening situation.
Those who lived here in that time had no idea travel by automobile from Kerrville to Junction would someday take less than an hour.
In their world, that journey took about a day, with stops along the way. It wasn’t a huge deal. A day’s travel was just what it took. They didn’t think “I wish this only took an hour.”
We color our understanding of history when we look at the experience of those who lived here before us through the goggles of our own experience.
We might get nostalgic about the horses, or the buggy, or the fact that the hills between here and Junction would have not been crowded, that the night sky would have been brighter, that the game along the road would have been, by today’s standards, quite fantastic. (Lots of bears, for example.)
Likewise some of the beliefs those people had in those days were not like our beliefs today. Today we believe man can fly, even so far as to the moon. We know prejudice is wrong. We know we can pick up a small device, push a few buttons, and instantly talk with someone on the other side of the planet. We know we can hop in the car and in a few minutes find ourselves at one of hundreds of tables around town enjoying a hot meal – and we have choices about our cuisine (Italian, Tex-Mex, Southern, etc.).
In the middle of the 19th century, none of these things were known as they are known today.
There are some art historians who can identify the period in which a painting was created by merely looking at the brushstrokes. That means, to my argument here, I suppose, our times dictate very much about us, even small minute things most of us would overlook, like a brushstroke.
This past week I studied for a very long time (almost to the point of obsession, to be frank) a photograph my friend John M. Mosty brought by. The photograph is of Kerrville, taken from a hillside, after a snow. I suppose what I was trying to do, as I looked at it over and over again, using my computer to magnify and sharpen its minute details, was determine from what point the photograph was taken. Knowing from which hill Mosty’s father took the photo would tell me what was pictured in it.
Despite my effort I’m still not sure about the subject of the photo; there are two competing theories, and both are plausible.
Then I realized it wasn’t important to know exactly from which hill the photo was taken. When Mr. Mosty’s father took the photo, he couldn’t have known that the valley before him would someday have this building built here or that built there. He wouldn’t have known about the roads that would someday be built, roads that circle the sleeping town like a crown.
The moment that photo was taken, on some unknown hill around here, I’m pretty sure the thoughts were more “the snow is lovely on the quiet town,” and “my goodness, it’s cold.”
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who enjoys thinking about the past.  You can connect with Joe on Facebook at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please remember this is a rated "family" blog. Anything worse than a "PG" rated comment will not be posted. Grandmas and their grandkids read this, so please, be considerate.



Related Posts with Thumbnails