- Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence
Peter Burke has mobilized his decades of work in social and cultural history in order to write this exhortative book exploring the value of images for historical writing. Stressing the use of “traces” rather than “sources” to understand the past, Burke argues that visual documents provide invaluable evidence that both bolsters and supplements other forms of information available to historians. In particular, Burke argues, “images can bear witness to what is not put into words.” Yet Burke has observed a continuing reluctance to use them by most historians, particularly beyond a mere illustration of arguments made on the basis of written data. With notable exceptions, Burke claims, only in the 1980s did what William Mitchell calls a “pictorial turn” take place. The evolving history of mentalities and material culture encouraged such a “turn,” and the series “Picturing History” in which Eyewitnessing appears was launched in 1995 to promote this development. With the emergence of the “generation...exposed to computers, as well as television, [that] has always lived in a world saturated with images” Burke implies the potential for the “new trend” to find a good head of steam. Yet, Burke is surprisingly cautious about writing a manual that could be used to train graduate students. He did not want to write a “how-to-do-it” book, given the “often ambiguous or polysemic” subjectmatter, and the suggestive rather than systematic organization of his book makes it more helpful for the working historian than a novice (9–15, 31, 185).
In a series of chapters Burke interweaves a wide and sometimes confusing variety of issues raised by the challenge of turning images into “admissable evidence.” He introduces at different points both the kinds of visual evidence available to historians and the range of information that a close reading can extract from them. Periodically, he also strays into questions about the reception of images and their use by patrons or consumers, including “the role of image as agent”. Burke also keeps returning to the central issue of contextualization as he provides cautionary tales and examples. Reference to theoretical perspectives appears as needed to explore the meaning of works under consideration. Yet while substantial evaluation of the iconological approach makes up Chapter Two, it is only as a curious sort of postscript that Burke presents a variety of recent theoretical avenues available to historians (14, 145).
Burke has gathered together in Eyewitnessing a plethora of intriguing visual documents that illustrate his analysis, moving beyond Western cultures to give his book a global range. He begins with portraits and photographs, and later includes religious imagery, “images in politics,” material remnants of “the everyday culture of ordinary people,” representations of the “other”, pictorial historical recreations, and film. From the ways in which “images propagate values” to information about the “social use of objects,” from the mentality of ordinary people to the “forms of social behavior,” from the unexamined prejudices shaping images of women or colonial subjects to the deliberate presentation of rulers, visual documents reveal useful information for historical analysis (60, 78, 81, 100–103).
How to unlock the secrets hidden in these documents engages Burke throughout [End Page 767] the book. Methods include using a series of comparable images to uncover continuities and changes over time. Paying attention to “small details” leads to fascinating revelations about the social mores or mentality of past cultures. But deceptions await the incautious historian, so Burke begins with the portraits and photographs that illustrate well the seductive sense of “reliability” that seemingly “unfiltered” images can provide. The message even in these cases depends on the cultural traditions from which the image’s creator draws and which interpreters must painstakingly recreate, the point Burke repeatedly illustrates (21–33).
Theory can also help historians to interpret and decode visual documents. Burke relies heavily on Erwin Panofsky’s approach to unlocking the surface and underlying meanings of images, despite his caution about the approach’s limits. He later applies the “concept of the ‘gaze,’...the western gaze, for example, the...