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:
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 dancers—we’re unsure of whether they’re nervous, or just plain bored.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
This particular edict by Emperor Ashoka was bilingual—written 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.
Spectators climb over furniture for a glimpse of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, in 1919.
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.
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.