Reading Blog 5 (History 697): Image Power

Images are extremely powerful, especially clearly rendered, well-framed photographs.  My belief is that historians who make no attempt to marry up the written word with visual representations  of their period often fail in their craft. The written word can only take our mind’s eye so far; images fill gaps and excite our imaginations. As anyone can tell from my Typography site, photographs of actual events or period artifacts (such as front-page newspaper headlines or period magazine covers) are very important to my efforts to bring the interested reader / user into the fold. And, like Rebecca Hagen and Kim Golumbisky aver, content and image quality for photographs on Web sites mean everything (H&G, 136-138).  Simple, clearly represented subjects — in either color or black and white — can set a powerful tone not only for the Web site but also for the history the site represents.  I tinkered with using as a background image for my site a landing craft filled with GIs approaching Omaha Beach on the morning of 6 June 1944. I was unaware of what to expect; but, once I loaded the image, I was astonished to discover how powerful that photograph’s composition proved to be for the subject of my site. The image gave me (and hopefully my soon-to-be users) the feeling that I was on that landing craft with those men heading on a direct journey into history.  If not for the quality of that image, the composition skill of the photographer,  and the image’s immediately recognizable subject matter, the background would not have worked so well. And, frankly, it was dumb luck on my part — but I learned something new about Web-site design and the power of good, effective images from that “tinkering” exercise.

My desire to marry up imagery with historical narrative has had a long and frustrating history.  But I’m happy to say that both the Web and digital history more broadly have offered an effective solution. As the author of two books on World War II subjects, I selected for each book no fewer than 40 photographs for inclusion in each final published work.  In both cases, my publishers came back with the standard response: cut the photograph count in half.  Why? Money. Photographs were expensive to reproduce in hardcover books. Fewer photographs meant a bigger bottom line. In both instances, I fought with my editors to keep as many of the pictures as possible. These images were not run-of-the-mill, stock photographs but unpublished, never-before-seen images that I spent years locating and linking to my  historical analysis.  But my appeals to “good history” fell on deaf  ears. And, yes, these publishing houses were of the peer-reviewed, academic sort. Go figure.  More astonishingly,  they tried to get me to cut down heavily on the ultimate “infographic” for military historians — the map.  For my last book, I spent hundreds of man-hours creating a dozen maps that were anything but “window dressing” for the book.  They were critical to the narrative by “delivering content,” as Hagen and Golumbisky explain, in a way that words often cannot do (H&G, 160).

But today, the ability to do history on the Web opens up many, many possibilities in the visual realm, most notably the ability to supplement printed history tomes with more and more images made available on the Web at little to no cost.  Thanks to Clio-Wired II, I can actually build a somewhat respectable Web site; and, in the near future, I plan to construct a site for each of my books that will allow me to post those photographs (and some maps) that didn’t make the cut. Many members of my reading audience have contacted me through my Facebook page; therefore, I plan to add the Web links there in order to reach out to readers past and present with a plethora of images that can further enhance their understanding of the history I worked so hard to convey in my books.  In fact, some publishers are starting to establish such sites to coincide with their hard-copy publications.  These publishers seem to be using these sites to provide the reading public with more images, maps, and frequently omitted bibliographies. A good deal all around.

The ethics of using photographs and other images in the service of the historical narrative is also of particular importance to me. Granted, Hagen and Golumbisky state that the photographic ethics of “truth, accuracy, fairness[,] and balance” (H&G, 144) are not as important for images used in advertising.  Fair enough. But I think  you can still get into trouble if you take license with any image — no matter the purpose behind its use. As historians who are now moving into the Web’s digital arena, we need to play it “straight” in all instances. In other words, we have to balance strictly our desire to “advertise” our sites using good design imagery with the historical message we are trying to send.  In other words, the desire to entice users to our sites might come into conflict with our choices of proper photographic imagery.  The eye-catching image may not always be the best choice. If we are good historians, then we are trying to advance an argument with imagery and the written word. For some people, though, our arguments may seem “propagandized” and adorned with images that appear to advance one version to the exclusion of another. The potential result is the same situation that Errol Morris discusses in “The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock” regarding Arthur Rothstein’s dust-bowl photograph of the cow’s skull.  The image is eye-catching, simple, and powerful — and it advanced a political point of view favorable to FDR’s administration. In other words, it became sheer propaganda.  As historians, we cannot afford such branding. More mundane, ‘un-staged’ photographs of dust-bowl life would have been more historically accurate but probably not as evocative. Where’s the balance? Do we want to attract readers to our subject matter at all costs? The scholarly message can get lost in the imagery if the imagery itself comes into question.  In other words, a bad picture can implode a brilliantly insightful, well-crafted historical narrative.  I know of one instance in which a misidentified, and somewhat misrepresented, photograph in an otherwise excellent history of a particular World War II battle caused the book’s credibility to collapse. The author is a friend, and the damage done by that judgment error still haunts him today. As historians, we must exercise extreme care in how we choose images for our Web sites and use them in the service of our historical arguments. I love good, crisp images, especially black-and-white photographs that are rich in detail.  But I recognize fully that, in some cases, I might have to choose the lesser quality image over the more “design-worthy” image simply because that lesser image is more accurate and better serves the greater historical good.

Images are important and powerful, and the Web allows us to use as many as we want with wild abandon. And, for that very reason, we must be extremely cautious and demonstrate a scrupulousness that is beyond reproach.  Our historical subjects — and our reading public — deserve that kind of exemplary conduct.

Steve Rusiecki

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