Every Picture Tells a Story, Don’t It?

This weeks’ book, articles, and lynda.com videos were all about the nuts and bolts of how to edit photos for the web and how to choose appropriate color schemes for the messages you are trying to convey based on the images you intend to use. While these technical skills will be great to have, as historians it is not always entirely clear when and how we should use photo editing without compromising the integrity of our historical images. When does editing change the meaning of an image?

Sometimes removing elements from pictures makes them more clear and easily understandable. That was the case for the photograph of the Kent State massacre run by Time Magazine in 1970.

Kent State, 1970.

In this image, student Mary Ann Vecchio gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of a student, Jeffrey Miller, lying face down on the campus of Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio. On publication, the image was retouched to remove the fencepost above Vecchio’s head. This was because the placement of the fence post almost made it look like it was piercing the top of Vecchio’s head, thereby making the meaning of the image slightly cloudy. Was she being hit with the fence post? No. She was screaming because of the tragic shooting of Miller and the dozen other students at the hands of Ohio’s National Guardsmen. Therefore the post was removed to make the image more clear. But does moving the fence post change the image’s meaning? Personally I do not think so.

But where does someone draw the line? How can we avoid tampering with pictures, or even more pressing, how can we tell what images have been tampered with, making them inaccurate if not a-historical? This is certainly a large problem in the 21st Century, but we should remember that this issues is not new. Instead, it has been a problem since the invention of photography.

"Field At Antietam," by Alexander Gardner, 1862. LOC.

Famously, we all know of the posed Civil War photographs which went a long way to turn public opinion against the war effort. But, there have been many other examples of posing photos during war time. Including Rodger Fenton’s “Into the Shadow of the Valley of Death” series which sought to capture the 1855 Crimean War. There are two images in this series, one with no cannon balls on the road and one with many. Debates continue about which image was taken first, how and why the cannon balls came to be in the road, and if the image was posed. Despite debates, the photo is considered a seminal piece in war photography, especially since Fenton was the first official war photographer. Though the images in each of these examples were posed, or potentially posed, the pictures did capture the very real carnage of the events. Thus they cannot be dismissed completely. They still have merit, but merit which must be viewed with skepticism.

Roger Fenton, "Into the Shadow of the Valley of Death," 1855. LOC.

But that is true of all sources which we explore. Nothing is “true” or without bias. It is just sometimes more difficult to remember that with photos as they seem to capture a real moment in time. All photos have some bias and do not describe the whole picture, no pun intended. But it is also important to keep an eye out for flat out frauds, such as this picture of Ulysses S. Grant in front of troops at City Point, Virginia during the Civil War. It is a compilation of three pictures.

This image shows the compilation of photos which came together to create the far left image which appears to be Grant with his troops in Virginia, 1864. LOC.

Unfortunately I cannot draw certain conclusions on the many questions I have posed here, but I think that as long as we as historians attempt to uphold authenticity and remove our own biases from image editing the way we would with all other primary source work we can safely edit historical pictures without making them a-historical.

3 Responses to Every Picture Tells a Story, Don’t It?

  1. Pingback: » H697 First week with Photoshop Megan R. Brett

  2. Sheri says:

    The history of photographic manipulation would make for a fascinating study in motivation, methods, and meaning and the examples you include provide much to ponder over the authenticity of “original” source materials. While I do not debate that manipulation has already occurred for various reasons over time, I do want to open discussion that guidelines be adhered to for historians to “do no harm” in their representation of events through images. You certainly make the case that tracing the provenance of images to search for tampering can also be added to the list of best practices before inserting an image into a project or web site. I would agree with Geoff’s comment that it is incumbent upon historians to leave “breadcrumbs” so that original sources can be located (http://gwcohrs.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/fear-and-loathing/). I also think that David’s comments from the perspective of a public historian in determining what to select from an image for the purposes of museum display requires a balance between the methods and the means, but as he reminds us, historians should also consider what information to include in the metadata or caption of the revised image to place the partial or adapted image in the context of the “original” work (http://www.davidmckenzie.info/musings/2012/02/25/playing-with-photoshop/). Maybe the telling of how the image has been manipulated over the years provides the better story (like your display of the Grant photos) or maybe the audience just wants a visual reference for the text and could care less about any creativity with the image (think of the popularity of “Forrest Gump”). Either way, while we can not deny that manipulation occurs, we (as the collective body of history professionals) can also promote authenticity rather than theatricality and explanation rather than omission in our digital representations of history and by opening up the debate we will hopefully determine our own best practices to consider in conjunction with practices already established in the profession.

  3. Pingback: The Digital Filter Application Process « The Journey to Enlightenment: Making the Leap to the Digital Age

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