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An Introduction to Visual Literacy: Case Study #1

A general introduction to reading and researching photographs and other visual resources

Case Study #1: Photographs from the Papers of Charles Phelps Smyth

Charles Phelps Smyth (1895-1990) was born in Clinton, New York and studied chemistry at Princeton and Harvard Universities. Smyth served in the National Bureau of Standards and Chemical Warfare Service during World War I and was a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry at Princeton University from 1920 to 1963. During World War II, Smyth worked on the Manhattan Project and, at the end of the war, traveled to Germany as part of the ALSOS Mission to locate and secure scientists and equipment involved in Germany's nuclear research. The photographs found in Smyth's personal papers document his professional activities and achievements, most notably his travels through Germany at the end of World War II.

Step 1: What Do You See?

Before undertaking any research, take a close look at the photographs in the slideshow on the right and draw some initial conclusions based on what you observe in the photos, as well as any captions, dates, or locations.

The Vehicles

According to the photograph captions, all of these images were taken in Germany in 1945, which may lead researchers to conclude that they were taken at the end of World War II. The presence of military vehicles in some of the photographs is a further indication that they were taken during the war, perhaps in one of the newly recaptured territories occupied by American troops.

The People

Some of the photographs show groups of people boarding the trucks or walking around with suitcases, though these people are not identified in the titles or captions. However, a researcher could conclude that they are German citizens who have been uprooted from their homes or are being relocated elsewhere.

The Landscape

What is interesting about these photographs is the lack of destruction evident in them. Despite the presence of military vehicles and the timing of the photographs, the streets and bridge are intact, presenting an interesting contrast with familiar images of the destruction of Dresden and other German cities as a result of the strategic Allied bombing campaign.

Selected photos from the Papers of Charles Phelps Smyth

Photo 1

Bridge over river in Germany (1945)

Photo 2

German countryside (1945)

Photo 3

Street view in Germany with unidentified people and children (1945)

Photo 4

Unidentified people on truck (1945)

Photo 5

Street view in Germany with people and trucks (1945)

Photo 6

Entrance to Brenner base in Germany (1945)

Step 3: Make a List of Terms

After making observations and formulating some questions to focus your research, create a list of key terms that might assist your research. Here are some terms you might use to find additional information about the photographs in the slideshow: 

1. Charles P. Smyth

2. ALSOS Mission

3. National Bureau of Standards and Chemical Warfare Service

4. Germany in 1945

5. Manhattan Project

6. German nuclear research during WWII

7. Department of Chemistry at Princeton University

While "Germany in 1945" is a broad search term, reading more about Germany at the end of World War II may give some perspective and context to the photographs in this collection.

Terms like the "ALSOS Mission," "National Bureau of Standards," "Chemical Warfare Service," and the "Department of Chemistry at Princeton University" are all keywords taken from the summary of the Papers of Charles Phelps Smyth of which these photographs are part. While these terms may not directly relate to the photographs, learning more about important aspects of Smyth's life and career may shed light on his experiences during WWII and his reason for taking these photographs. 

Step 4: Find and Look Through Sources

Charles P. Smyth Oral History

One source for further understanding the content and context of these photographs is the Oral History of Charles P. Smyth. also housed at the Science History Institute. The oral history, conducted in 1986 by Jeffrey L. Sturchio and Ronald E. Doel in Princeton, New Jersey, details Smyth's life, including his time in Germany at the end of the war. While not all of the oral history is relevant to the photographs being analyzed, it is still helpful to gain a better sense of who Smyth was and his experiences leading up to the events captured in the photographs. The more you know, the better you can understand the context and meaning of the photographs.

One part of the oral history most relevant to this case study is the appendix entitled "Scientists in a Jeep." Written by Smyth himself, "Scientists in a Jeep" gives a detailed account of his involvement in the ALSOS Mission in Germany in 1945.

Most interestingly, Smyth's account describes how damaged and war-torn Germany appeared. In particular, Smyth mentions seeing a university museum in Gottingen that was completely destroyed except for a staircase and an undamaged, untouched mummy standing in the midst of the destruction. In another instance, he mentions seeing a hotel he visited in 1933 in complete shambles. However, this destruction is not evident in the photographs from Smyth's collection, leading researchers to ponder why he chose to document one part of his travels and not another. 

Step 2: Pose Questions

Below are a list of questions that may come to mind when viewing these photographs:

1. Where in Germany were these photographs taken?

2. Are these areas where the Allies took control?

2. When in 1945 were these photographs taken?

3. Why did Charles Smyth want to photograph this? What was he trying to say with these photographs?

4. Why are some of the trees marked with white paint?

5. What was the relationship between the Americans and Germans at this time?

6. What differences did Smyth notice about Germany since his trip in 1920?

7. Did any fighting happen in any of these locations?

8. Who are the people getting onto the trucks? Why are they carrying luggage with them?

9. Why was Smyth in Germany? As a civilian? As part of the military?

Step 5: Synthesize

Typically, a researcher would consult additional sources, perhaps using Smyth's oral history as a jumping off point to investigate other key figures and events. However, for the purposes of this case study, we'll limit our research and synthesis to the oral history. 

After reading through Charles P. Smyth's oral history, we can conclude that Smyth's written account of the ALSOS Mission and the photographs in this collection offer different perspectives on these events. In "Scientists in a Jeep," the destruction of Germany towns is mentioned multiple times, while the photographs only hint at the displacement of civilians through the presence of military vehicles and people carrying luggage. 

If a researcher only looked at the photographs, his or her conclusions would be very different than the narrative that reading Smyth's oral history provides. Without reading the oral history, it is unlikely researchers would know that Charles Smyth actually witnessed quite a bit ofdestruction while traveling through Germany. Also, in the context of the ALSOS mission, the presence of military vehicles in what we assume was newly-acquired territory makes sense. The trucks could have been transporting troops to the next point of engagement or transporting displaced civilians. While Smyth's papers do not definitively explain who the people in these photographs are, ultimately these assumptions are not unreasonable based on the resources available to researchers.