H697 Images and other non-textual sources

Of all the readings and exercises this week, I most enjoyed The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock. The whole story hinges on which photograph, if any, are “true” or it they are all “lying.”

To quote Dr. Gregory House, “Everybody lies.”

Which is to say that most sources are guilty of some sort of subjectivity on the part of the author/creator, whether they are textual or not. Images are not inherently true or more reliable simply because they capture a slice of reality in a different way than words. To extend Geoff’s very apt methaphor of image cropping v. quoting texts from last week: the author of a text and the creator of an image both decide what to take out and what to leave in. Where they crop a sentence or a frame can tell us a great deal about what information they want to convey.

Perhaps I am simply accustomed to interrogating images for historical information. I have long had an interest in medieval Europe, particularly the Northern Renaissance. In high school, I wrote a paper for drama class which outlined proper historical costuming for a production of A Lion In Winter. Clothing (and certain types of material culture) is not always available as artifact, so you have to rely on paintings. Which are frequently religious, so then you have to determine whether what the people in the background are wearing is more or less “contemporary” or is it the artist’s idea of “biblical times”. In other words, you learn to read between the lines of an image.

Which brings me back around to the Inappropriate Alarm Clock. Photographs aren’t necessarily any more true than texts, but neither are they any more false. I appreciate the author of the piece pointing out that the text, which others kept referring to as an accurate description of the contents of the house, was just as flawed and just as reflective of the aims of its creator as the photograph.

One of the things we learn as historians, hopefully early on, is to evaluate sources. The sources we’re taught to evaluate tend to be textual. With such a wealth of non-textual sources available – photographs, prints, cartoons, decorative arts, textiles, clothing – it only makes sense to learn how to extend the critical mind to all possible sources of historical information.

Edit: This week I commented on Geoff and Richard’s posts.