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.

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13 Responses to H697 Images and other non-textual sources

  1. Geoff says:

    You are correct; we totally are on the same page! Sometimes I’m afraid that I’ve gone off on some random tangent that no one else really cares about. Digressing. I think you made a great point about where your familiarity with this subject matter comes from in your comment to my post. Academics and other historians who already have a familiarity with the topic and use images critically in their works are more likely to pass that knowledge on to their students. This isn’t just something that public historians, particularly those within museums, are exposed to. It’s very important that if we ever find ourselves in a teaching capacity that we share as much of our knowledge as possible. I also think some of the understanding of creator bias stems from a familiarity with artistic criticism. The reason I think it’s important to note this is because I believe it reveals a lot about the nature of our work as humanists and historians. Whether you work in digital media, academic history, public history, the arts, publishing/literature, archaeology, etc we all have a lot to teach each other and our work often rests on many of the same epistemological foundations. We shouldn’t isolate ourselves within our archives. Mixing it up with our historians and humanists can often provide us with even more tools to do our work more effectively, which ultimately improves the quality of history we create (it also might improve our job prospects).

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  3. Fully agreed with you and Geoff on the importance of teaching visual literacy. I agree that it’s not something we’re always taught in the interrelated fields of public history and museum studies; I fully admit that in finding images to go into exhibitions, I took them at face value, whereas I critiqued the documents I used in writing the texts, much the same as I would for writing, say, an academic paper. I now hang my head in shame for not having been as critical… You and Geoff certainly aren’t on a strange tangent with your points, but are hitting at the heart of what academic, digital, and public historians need to learn and think about when using images, whether as sources or as ways to disseminate our stories.

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  5. I definitely agree with you—evaluating sources is crucial for producing worthy scholarly research. We become the jury, looking at the strength of visual evidence for a culture. I think both the falsehood and truth surrounding the evidence becomes very important. Even the ‘lie’ can tell us something true about that culture; this is especially true regarding your example about clothing in the medieval period: Panofsky calls it the “principle of disjunction” where classical motifs/forms where frequently exchanged with ‘contemporary’ ones in Medieval art. The exchange or the ‘falsehood’ of what they’re wearing in the painting might allude to the de-emphasis of antiquity during the heavily Christianized period, which becomes important for characterizing the art in that period.

    • mebrett says:

      Good point about the lie being as revealing as the truth.

      I didn’t know about the “principle of disjunction”, thank you for sharing. My approach to medieval art was always through history or theatre, so I never got some of the deep information and analysis. Thank you!

  6. I’m definitely on board with you, Geoff, and David! Visual literacy shouldn’t be the purview of only those interested. We’ve all taken historiography/methodology courses, but how many of those include substantial readings on visual analysis? It’s still a tangential endeavor when compared to the deep textual analysis that is the given of historical scholarship. Also, somehow when the issue of images/objects comes up for historians there seems to be some vague unease that the subject has shifted to another discipline like art history, anthropology, or archaeology. Yet historians ask different questions and there should be no reason images/objects are off limits. I think the adoption of visual literacy/analysis faces some similar issues as digital humanities: they are both outside mainstream methodologies (as reflected in historiography/methodology class syllabi) and having to explain why they deserve a seat at the table along with the “tried and true” ways of going about scholarship.

    • mebrett says:

      I agree that it needs to be taught, and definitely not as some sort of “other discipline” thing. I am extremely glad to have taken a course on material culture during my MSc programme, which covered everything from novels to furniture to architecture as ways of understanding gender in the 18th century (in Britain). There’s no reason not to use non-textual sources as historical sources, expect that (as you say) it seems to make many historians uneasy.

      • Fully agree with what both of you say, Megan and Celeste.

        At GW, for example, classes on photography, material culture, etc., were offered through the American Studies program, not history. Since I was in museum studies and had my academic core in history (unlike many in the program, who did their cores in American Studies), I didn’t wind up taking those classes. Now I kind of wish I had, especially for doing public and digital history, not to mention academic. None of my friends in the history program took them, and they weren’t part of the historiography class (as Celeste notes, sounds like they generally aren’t). I wonder if the lack of knowledge of material culture, image literacy, etc., is what makes many historians so uneasy, and in turn feeds those not being part of methodology classes, which in turn feeds unease, and so on?

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  9. Jeri says:

    So, when we all rule the world, let’s make visual rhetoric a required course.

    In a bit more seriousness, I agree with the sentiment that the problem is less with the images themselves and is more with how we approach them. Just as we learn to read the subtext of written works, we should learn to read the subtext of visual work.

    There is another place where students can learn this skill beyond working with material culture or public history. My undergrad required everyone to take a “rhetoric” type course and one of the options was Visual Rhetoric. This was the option I took (because I didn’t want to take Speech) and I am really glad I did. We talked a lot about reading and creating visual arguments. I do think this should be a standard part of education, particularly as visual arguments take up so much of what people interact with on a regular basis.

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