How people saw: looking at photographs in history

By Jess Hope

“To the complaint, ‘There are no people in these photographs,’ I respond, ‘There are always two people: the photographer and the viewer.” – Ansel Adams

How do historians approach photographs as sources? Those of us who study the mid-19th century to the present can access a wealth of moments ‘captured’ on film, ranging from portraits and images of domestic life to war photography and documentary photojournalism. Historical photographs provide fascinating contextual information: who was present at a certain event, what they wore, the kinds of wallpaper designs that were fashionable at the time. But can we rely on what we see? And how should we interpret it?

In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration (later Farm Security Administration) released several photographs of drought-stricken South Dakota for publication in newspapers. Taken by Arthur Rothstein as part of an attempt to document the Dust Bowl in the Midwest, they provoked an uproar almost immediately: it seemed to many people that the same cow skull appeared in several different landscapes across the series. Not helped by the fact that the project was government-sponsored, Rothstein was accused of using a ‘prop’ to exaggerate the impact of drought in order to create support for New Deal intervention in the agricultural industry.

Photo manipulation is not just the product of a digital age, but has existed since the beginning of photography. In October 2012 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened an exhibition called Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, with two hundred works dating from the 1840s to the 1990s showing how staging, multiple exposures, photomontage, combination printing and retouching have long been used to alter images for artistic, political and commercial purposes. Pictures from Stalinist Russia showed just how easy it was to alter the historical record by ‘removing’ officials who had fallen from favour, late nineteenth-century composites displayed photographers’ efforts to overcome technological limitations by merging several images, and ‘decapitation’ pictures revealed the playfully macabre visual hoaxes popular at the turn of the century.

When we look at photographs and think about their multiple purposes—as propaganda, as entertainment, as records—we look at them through 21st-century eyes, with widespread awareness of and access to photo-manipulation technologies.  It can be easy to base conclusions about their original meanings on this critical perspective: this looks like propaganda, that looks like documentary, and so on. This is partly to do with the availability of sources. It is difficult to determine how contemporary audiences saw and understood photographs; rarely has there been a person with a voice recorder on the street ready to ask them.

Nikolai Yezhov (right) was later edited out of the photograph
Nikolai Yezhov (right) was later edited out of the photograph

Visual media, however, were not only created in particular historical moments, but were also ‘seen’ in particular historical moments, when certain popular ideas about photographic truth, genre, representation and technology may have informed the ways in which they were interpreted. That is to say, popular awareness of photographic manipulation—or visual literacy, as it might be called—has its own history. Did people see pictures in newspapers and understand them as objective, eye-witness records, or as carefully-composed interpretations subject to framing, layout, editing and manipulation? And how have these understandings shifted and changed over time? These are important questions for historians wishing to draw conclusions about the kinds of messages the makers of historical photographs actually communicated—instead of simply intended to communicate—to their audiences.

These manipulated images are a reminder that photographs are more than their content: they represent historically-specific means of communication that have been both used and understood in a variety of ways. When looking at photographs we must consider their content and use in the context of both their creators and their audiences. In the case of the Rothstein images, our understanding of their impact and of New Deal propaganda more generally may look different when we realise that many 1930s audiences kept a vigilant lookout for photographic deceit. To simply look at these Dust Bowl images today and imagine their shock-value for 1930s Americans is to miss a major part of the story.

1 thought on “How people saw: looking at photographs in history

  1. Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after looking at a few of the articles I realized it’s new to me. Regardless, I’m certainly pleased I discovered it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking back frequently!

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