- Images at War: Illustrated Periodicals and Constructed Nations
This book examines how the illustrated press of France, England, Canada, and Germany pictured the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Although the conflict lasted only six months, it produced a shockingly high number of casualties and heralded significant geopolitical developments in Europe. In addition, by 1870, the major European powers had an illustrated press that could adequately cover a significant event like a war. The Franco-Prussian war is thus a particularly rich context for investigating how image and text helped construct a national imaginary in several different countries at a key moment in their history.
As Martin shows, this process was anything but straightforward. In her analysis of a dozen or so papers from the four countries under review, Martin takes into account an impressive number of factors that determined the way each paper visualized the war for its readers: editorial policy and political orientation, commercial appeal, technological developments and limitations, distribution networks, the division of labour among the papers' staff, anonymity and signature, reader literacy, and collective memory. All of these conditions were hugely complicated by the pressures of wartime. Martin demonstrates how coverage of the war in most of the papers was characterized by 'rupture' and [End Page 276] contradiction, even though all of the papers tried to maintain the appearance of a unified, if not an 'objective,' stance.
A key point of the book is that readers of different class backgrounds were offered quite dissimilar versions of major developments, depending on which paper or papers they looked at regularly. Political allegiance was certainly a factor here, but so were material conditions of production and circulation. The book nicely balances consideration of both. Yet Martin rarely steps back from the primary evidence to consider broader cultural and political dynamics particular to each country that might have influenced the production of readers' 'interest' across class lines, lending a rather claustrophobic feel to the reading experience. Another fascinating line of inquiry is the production of the engravings themselves. Martin describes this as a hierarchical, 'assembly line' process that was at every turn marked by the subjective interpretation of often obscure, underpaid artists who sketched scenes in dangerous conditions, sometimes from memory, and engravers who had not seen the sites they were constructing. The precariousness of the material production of these images, while adequately described, is under-theorized. What did it mean that competing national identities were being reshaped on visual material produced in this manner?
In connection with this last point, I would have welcomed closer examination of some the images themselves. It is not until the last chapter that Martin actually scrutinizes the pictures that are apparently the central concern of the book, and then the discussion is rather cursory. She concedes that early illustrated coverage of the war was often banal and stereotypical, yet it seems to me that even these images might have been worth exploring in greater detail. Did nineteenth-century readers find them banal? Martin doesn't really speculate. Perhaps it might have been fruitful to depart occasionally from the usual scheme of investigating each paper by country, to explore how a particular image, or series of images, might have helped shape meanings of war and nation, both across and within national boundaries. (There is some discussion of the various illustrations of Napoleon III's surrender, but I longed for more.) Finally, the coverage of the German and Canadian press is quite scant compared to that of the French and English. This is probably because of the nature of the evidence; the German and Canadian illustrated presses were much smaller than those of the other two countries. Yet it is worth noting that those looking for balanced coverage of the two warring sides might be disappointed.
There is much that is of interest in Images at War. There is a fascinating discussion of France's use of air balloons and pigeons as alternate forms of communication when telegraph and rail lines had been cut off, for example, and the research...