History in the Public Domain

History in the Public Domain
The public domain license is a boon for history buffs, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Public domain photographs are an easily accessible goldmine of culture and achievement, if you know where to look

Nayanika Mukherjee
June 28 , 2019
08 Min Read

Most great photographs aren’t free. It takes deep insight into the human condition to make (and not just ‘click’) pictures that meaningfully stand the test of time. Naturally, sharing these works of art, much like expensive paintings and books, is a process that respects the source. Photographs whose authors still live, or have renewed their copyright licenses, need express permission for use and distribution. However, the average student, journalist (or similarly curious individual) surfing the web can still find an endless archive of ethno-sociological data via the public domain. These are pictures whose copyright has expired, not been renewed, or have simply been released for use with no restrictions. 

Below are some images that have been recently sourced from the public domain; some inspiring, some downright eye-opening. Make note of the sources, and you have a new (and engaging) way to kill time:


A charming monochrome portrait of Balinese dancers

Most Balinese dancers begin training at a very young age. Donning intricately-designed costumes and expressive eye makeup, the performances are both ritualistic and artistic. This 1929 repronegative photo shows two young dancerswe’re unsure of whether they’re nervous, or just plain bored. 

 Armstrong and Aldrin weren't the only ones aboard

Michael Collins, the Command Module pilot for the first moon landing, goes through a checklist in a simulator for Apollo 11. Post returning to Earth, and retiring from NASA in 1970, he was senior management at heavyweights like the National Air and Space Museum, and the Smithsonian. 

Johnson's had a large collection of portraits from Western India

Police attire in Mumbai, circa 1855-1862. The photograph, part of Photographs of Western India. Volume I. Costumes and Characters by William Johnson of the Bombay Civil Service, is one of many. Though composed with an Orientalist lens, Johnson’s pictures provide a useful ethnological record of metropolis in western India.

Photo from the Lou Gray Papers

Newly literate adult students take a commemorative photo at the Wil Lou Gray Opportunity School in South Carolina in the 1920s. The school was established by educator Wil Lou Gray, who primarily focused on adult literacy. The school remains as a leader of alternative education in the state. 

One of many sketches of Shah Jahan's family

Though it doesn’t feel like it, history confirms that renowned Dutch painter Rembrandt and Mughal emperor Shah Jahan were contemporaries. The artist created a series of non-commissioned artworks centred around Shah Jahan and his family, possibly after a study of Mughal miniatures. Indian art was frequently bought and exchanged in Europe, courtesy powerful trade links. This particular sketch is titled Shah Jahan and Dara Shikoh

 The Library of Congress is a rich archive of Native American imagery

Red Hawk, an Oglala warrior from 1905, sits on a horse that drinks from a small pond in the Badlands of North Dakota. Now a federally recognised tribe in the US, a majority of the Oglala people live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. This picture, made by Edward S. Curtis, is titled An oasis in the Badlands.

 The photo was taken from the rear of the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House

A full house at the Metropolitan Opera House (“the old Met”) in New York City, for a recital by eminent pianist Josef Hofmann. The Polish composer had been a music teacher and child prodigy, as well as an inventor who held over 70 patents. 

The warrior ancestry of the Maoris on display for the King of Greece

The Maori Battalion, an infantry group of the New Zealand Army, perform a haka in Helwan, Egypt in 1941. The men here were survivors of action in Greece during the Second World War. The four soldiers in the foreground, from left to right, are John Manuel, Maaka White, Te Kooti Reihana, and Rangi Henderson.

 Sabiha was one of eight adoptive siblings

Sabiha Gökçen, at age 23, was the world’s first female fighter pilot. An adoptive daughter of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, she now has an international airport named after her

 The edict proclaims a variant of Ashoka's beliefs on Dharma

This particular edict by Emperor Ashoka was bilingualwritten in Classical Greek and Aramaic. It’s the first known inscription of his, intended for Greeks living in modern-day Afghanistan, and the Kambojas, an Iron Age tribe in Iran. The edict was installed in the tenth year of his reign around 260 BCE. Discovered in 1958 at a mountainous outcrop called Chehel Zina, a cast is available at the Kabul Museum for public viewing. Curious about the translation? Click here.

The peace treaty signalled the end of WWI but was also catalyst for WWII

Spectators climb over furniture for a glimpse of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, in 1919.

The Dalai Lama is an influential figure in Tibetan Buddhism

The current Dalai Lama, all of four years old in 1939, meeting the journalist Archibald Steele. The official residence of all previous Dalai Lamas was the Potala Palace at Lhasa, until the Tibetan Uprising of 1959. An empty vestment still sits on the palace throne in Tibet, signifying the incumbent Lama’s absence.

Parts of the markets on Mulberry Street still exist till date

A photochrom postcard by the Detroit Publishing Company, showing markets in Mulberry Street, Manhattan’s Little Italy. Made around 1900, the photochrom process produced colorised images from black-and-white photographic negatives. Collecting these vividly-hued postcards was a craze in the early twentieth century, until World War I adjusted priorities. 

If you’d like to use public domain photographs in a commercial or non-commercial project, keep the following in mind:

> Confident descriptions aren’t a guarantee of actual happenings, especially online. Make sure you visit official sources when researching the story behind a picture.

> You can build upon, redistribute or try whatever else it is that tickles your fancy with these images. However, the license on a source must expressly state that it’s on the public domain. Not all copyleft licenses (such as Creative Commons or GPL) offer this degree of leeway. 

> If needed for high-quality prints, try searching for the TIFF file of a photograph with a dpi (dots per inch) of 300 or higher.

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