Images as Historical Sources

17th February 2014:  Images as Historical Sources

View the podcasts by Alyson Brown, Gillian Murray and Rosemary Barrow. Then think about the following quotations from Peter Burke’s Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence and discuss the questions.

‘In short, images allow us to ‘imagine’ the past more vividly. As the critic Stephen Bann puts it, our position face-to-face with an image brings us ‘face-to-face with history’.
QU. Are visual images more powerful than text, why?

‘Traditionally, historians have referred to their documents as ‘sources’, as if they were filling their buckets from the stream of Truth, their stories becoming increasingly pure as they move closer to the origins. The metaphor is a vivid one but it is also misleading, in the sense of implying the possibility of an account of the past which is uncontaminated by intermediaries.’
QU. What might we mean by ‘intermediaries’ with regard to images?

‘the use of the testimony of images raises many awkward problems. Images are mute witnesses and it is difficult to translate their testimony into words…To use the evidence of images safely, let alone effectively, it is necessary – as in the case of other kinds of source – to be aware of its weaknesses. The ‘source criticism’ of written documents has long formed an essential part of the training of historians. By comparison, the criticism of visual evidence remains undeveloped, although the testimony of images, like that of texts, raises problems of context, function, recollection…and so on.’
QU. Think of an image from the past that you know, what do you think its weaknesses might be?

(Burke, Peter. Eyewitnessing : The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence.London: Reaktion Books, 2010. Pp. 13-15)

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