the magic (aka manipulation) of images

Photographs, and images more generally, are sites of conflict over meaning and representation. So much of the struggle in discussing photographs stems from the notion that photos are “true” in some sense, or less subjective than say painting or drawing, if only as a slice of a scene in a given context, in that specific moment in time. These conflicts, this messiness that happens when investigating images, is what continues to fascinate me about visual culture: there isn’t one True Meaning. It’s not new to suggest that historians adopt critical methodologies to analyze images as clearly and rigorously as textual sources; perhaps the increase in scholarly work in new media will help address this need as more scholars are trained and become more competent at preparing and dealing with images first-hand.

There’s an element of staging/posing in any photograph. It’s easy to recognize in, for example, studio portraits and Alexander Gardner’s famous Civil War images from Antietam, but also present in every decision to compose, crop, and focus while taking a photo. The furor over the FSA photos and the more recent discussions surrounding Photoshop are high-profile examples, but it’s good to remember that those questions can easily be applied to any photograph from any period–knowing the technical limitations of the processes changes the specifics but not the underlying debates.

The relationship of photo to caption, as discussed here in relation to Rothstein’s FSA photos, highlights how much text can influence the viewers understanding of an image. The author, Errol Morris, rightfully points out that “to fake a photograph you don’t need Photoshop; just rewrite the captions.” A viewer’s understanding of a photograph often comes from the caption, since people are more used to “reading” words than pictures. This is a continuing concern for me as I dabble with digital presentations of my research projects, which are dependent on images. While I want to caption/credit images properly, I’m hesitant to put captions immediately visible under the images, because I’ve become more aware that people are likely to glance over the caption for basic information about what the image is about before investigating the image itself. I’ve seen this in people perusing museums, and I’ve noticed that in my peers who have reviewed drafts of projects. For my final project for Clio1 I worked on a Prezi version of one of my thesis chapters, and got the idea from Prof. Gibbs to put all of the caption information in micro-text. The information was there, but the images dominated. This is an issue I know will continue to bedevil my work, how to balance providing information for my reader and also achieve my goal of foregrounding images as more than illustrations. Hopefully, the more I learn about coding and design and such the more deftly I can strike this balance.

*Update: this week I commented on Chris’ and Megan’s blogs while riffing off Geoff and David’s discussions for this week.

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