- Historicizing the Visual
A colleague and I have a running joke. Whenever we correspond about our research, we preface our conversation with feigned criticism of each other’s choice and reading of the sources, suggesting they are ill suited to serious historical analysis. While this might come off as puerile and silly—and, certainly, at times it is—it stems from a very real sense of frustration with the limited range of ways we historians, at times, select and treat our evidence. My purpose in the short space I have here is not to throw down the gauntlet and challenge us all, collectively, to do better. Nor do I wish to give the impression that all is lost. Instead, drawing on some of the issues I have been thinking about these past months in relation to my own work with visual culture, specifically photography, my goal is to prod convention and suggest a few new paths worth navigating as this journal embarks on its new course.
In 2006, contributors to the H-German listserv weighed in on the meaning of the visual turn for German history. If there was one point of consensus, it was that we historians tend to read visual evidence literally, flatly, as illustrative and not constitutive of distinct if complex historical sentiments, memories, and ways of being in the world at particular moments in time. Reasons for this vary widely, from the positivist origins of the discipline and the preference for text over image, to continued antipathy in some corners of the field towards the cultural turn. Some six years later we continue to see that while all sources are challenging, requiring expert care and precision of thought, visual sources remain especially tricky. Need they be so difficult to work with? Instead of lingering over why it is we struggle with visual sources, instead let me suggest a few ways we might consider using them to deepen our historical analyses.
With considerable work of late drawing on painting and mixed media, film and television, dress design, architectural plans, advertising campaigns, erotica, family photo albums, and poster art, there is no doubt that historians have taken the visual turn. Photography has made an especially indelible impact on us and we happily incorporate images into our books and articles to illustrate the complexity of our arguments. Yet ask any historian, and we’ll freely admit a wary discomfort with how to analyze them as sources. Can a single photo encapsulate the spirit of an age? How representative are images if they are inherently subjective? Art historians, photography [End Page 485] theorists, and media studies people appear to have had different concerns. Since the 1970s, when photography slowly gained acceptance as a fine art, they debated whether the medium fundamentally changed, altered, or simply displaced more long-standing ways of perceiving and engaging with the natural world. They argued over methodology; whether semiotic, psychoanalytic, or materialist approaches were best suited to the medium; and in heated exchanges in newly established journals like October they hashed out the foundations of their field.
Among visual sources, at least according to Roland Barthes, photography is unique. It lulls us into thinking its primary purpose and function is to showcase life as it happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist).1 Shrouded from view are the ways in which a photo’s actual qualities, strategies, and features render meaning intelligible to us in the first place. Although they often obfuscate the technology of making meaning under the cover of realism, photographs are active sources, disciplining the eye to see certain things more plainly at distinct moments in time. One need only think of the role of forensic, medical, and anthropological photography in making racial difference, deviance, and moral superiority visible in the nineteenth century. But their power is not merely scopic. They draw on our other senses and emotions through a series of cues that originate both within and outside the frame, intricate codes that resonate with viewers, “prick” their sensibility (again, echoing Barthes), and help forge a sense of what it all means. If meaning is contingent on the image’s resonance with a viewer’s subjectivity, then it matters who...