Beyond the Lens

by Faith Thrun, NMAS 2021 Collections Intern

As the saying goes, a photograph is worth a thousand words, but what happens when you have an entire archive filled with photographs from dozens of people and time periods? The stories contained in the photographs at the National Museum of the American Sailor tell a range of stories from individuals that combine to tell the collective experience of the enlisted sailor. Although the main subjects are the protagonists of these stories, it is also important to look at the context behind them as well. These details are what build the stories of the people in them and who took them. 

As the 2021 Collections Intern, I am currently working on a complete inventory of the museum’s archives and it is always amazing to me how much information one can gather from a singular photograph, much less a complete album or collection detailing a sailor’s time with the United States Navy. Take for example this photo album, shown below, from James C. Stoner, Motor Machinist’s Mate First Class (MM1), which chronicles his time in the Pacific theatre during World War II. From these photographs we get a glimpse into the perspective and life of this sailor.

This hand-painted cover depicts the USS Cincinnati (CL-6), the ship on which Stoner served, and an eagle.

Another reason I enjoy working with photographs is being able to see the growth of an individual. We can follow relationships through reoccurring faces in the photographs and even watch an individual or group of people grow together. For example, we have photographs that chronicle part of the life of Robert Stanich, who enlisted and served beginning in WWII until his retirement from the Navy in 1962.

Left: Stanich as a young sailor on leave, visiting his parents in 1948. Right: Several years later, Stanich as a parent himself, ca. 1954.

Looking back on photographs, one can get a glimpse of how much an individual went through or changed over the years, like Stanich becoming a father. Looking closely, the changes in style, technology, or even photography itself can be spotted. These changes are especially apparent for those who knew the sailor or lived through that time. However, by preserving collections like these, new generations can use photographs to learn about the past in a way that words alone cannot teach.

Images courtesy of the National Museum of the American Sailor.

Faith Thrun is the National Museum of the American Sailor 2021 Collections Intern. This internship supports the work of the museum’s collections staff, caring for the artifacts and archives retained in museum’s permanent collection. The internship is generously sponsored by the National Museum of the American Sailor Foundation.

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