The Truth in Old Photos, Thanks to Siobhan Finneran of Downton Abbey

There’s a photo going around Facebook that shows Downton Abbey actor Siobhan Finneran as her character, Sarah O’Brien, on one side and Siobhan all “dolled up” on the other. I suspect that most people look at it and think, Gee, she’s much prettier when she has makeup on and her own hair.

Frederick Douglass

But I saw it differently. I reflected on those old black-and-white and sepia-toned photographs from the 1840s through the 1960s, when color photography really gained steam. I thought about those old photos of Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover, of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, and of all the nameless faces in daguerreotype images hanging on museum walls.

Those people came in living color too, I remind myself, and it’s only when you try to imagine what they might have looked like in the flesh that they truly come to life.

Siobhan Finneran

When you look at Siobhan’s character in black and white, she has harsh features and a terribly old-style hairstyle. Her look is stern, and she’s wearing a less than flattering black dress.

But when you look at Siobhan herself, in color and as she appears “normally,” you see the subtle shades in her skin. Her face softens, her eyes look more intriguing than piercing. She becomes, to us, real.

How many of us have looked at old photos in museums and passed them by because they weren’t relevant? Because the photos were so old, who cares?

I know I did. But I try not to anymore.

Reading books like David McCullough’s The Greater Journey and Matthew Algeo’s The President is a Sick Man has helped me visualize people from long ago as they actually were. Not as blank-faced, sepia-toned photographs, but as living, breathing individuals, just like us today. There but for the grace of God….

That’s a nice lesson to learn.

So, to whomever put those two photos of Ms. Finneran together, thank you for the lesson.

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