Shortridge: We need a Delaware Photographers’ Project


Dan Shortridge of Dover is a historian, writer and the co-author of “Lost Delaware” with Rachel Kipp. His next book, due out later this year, is “Joe Biden’s Delaware.”

From the U.S. flag being raised on Iwo Jima to Muhammad Ali’s knockout blow of Sonny Liston and from horrified students at Kent State to the flight of the Wright brothers, photographs have documented vital moments in American history over the last 185 years.

Yet, many photographs retrieved from history are often missing critical information that might make them relevant — caption details, dates and locations. Think of a cardboard box of 3-by-5-inch family photos or an Instagram photo gallery without captions or scribbles on the back. They may record a critical time, document a landmark location or chronicle the lives of important people, but they can’t be sorted or easily identified.
In my own recent research for two local history books, I’ve come across numerous images in this category. There are photos of buildings without dates or locations, or with garbled names; captions that identify one person but leave the other three unnamed; and snapshots in which the people are identified but the occasion isn’t.

Archivists and researchers do their darnedest decades later to document what’s going on, but in the absence of details being recorded at the time the photograph was taken, it’s an oft-impossible challenge. The Delaware Public Archives has a wealth of images, but more than a few are labeled “Undated,” always a sad sight. Having those simple digits would allow historians to place the photo in its proper point in time or use it to feature the cultural or economic context of the era.

As Delaware prepares for the state’s semiquincentennial — our 250th anniversary, taking place in 2026 — we have a unique opportunity to make things easier for the historians and researchers who will come generations from now.

In the 1930s, as part of the New Deal, the government brought us a series of federally funded ventures to document American life and heritage, most notably the Federal Writers’ Project. The result was an amazing collection of artwork and words that captured America in a time of transformation.

Today, we need a Delaware Photographers’ Project to record the First State as it exists now. We can send photographers across the state to capture main streets and rural roads, small shops and large warehouses, cultural gathering places and religious ceremonies, and much more. The photographers would produce concise and thorough captions — details, dates and locations. And state, county and local governments could underwrite their costs, ensuring that the photos are explicitly taken for the public domain and made easily accessible online through the state archives.

These photos would document not just the historic sites that are icons today but the ordinary locations and events that make up our lives.

Pictures of library shelves and Wawa sandwiches, snowplow fleets and electric compact cars, manga clubs and Scout campouts will all help tell the story of Delaware in this century — and that’s just as important to future history as Ali standing over Liston or the aftermath of Kent State.

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