Fear and Loathing in History

The longer I’m in grad school the more I realize that the differences, concerns, and experiences of public historians and academic historians are not just superficial. Ideas or activities that give many academic historians pause, don’t necessarily inspire the same reactions in public historians.

This week in class (Feb 27) we’re beginning to learn Photoshop as well as looking more deeply into how color affects design. While I enjoyed reading the color articles and considering how I could use them in my designs, nothing of what they said really surprised me. Working in public history (especially exhibit design) you quickly realize how important color is. The curatorial staff and exhibit designers work together to create an atmosphere in each gallery in part by utilizing color. It’s not really a science, it’s much more of an art (as the Ideabook article pointed out). Color directs people in certain ways, naturally enhances certain elements of an image or object, and it can even create moods. This all very important on a webpage, as it is in a gallery space. Imagine an art gallery: a spartan space with white walls automatically pulls the eye to the artwork. It also leads to the sanitizing of objects (something that Mark O’Neill briefly discusses in his article Essentialism, adaptation and justice: Towards a new epistemology of museums*). In many museums each gallery space has it’s walls painted a different color. These color choices were made consciously. This practice is not limited to art museums, many history museums employ this practice as well. When one exhibit is dismantled the gallery walls are freshly painted with an entirely new color of paint before the next exhibit is assembled. In most museums wall colors are particular to the current exhibit.

I don’t want to give the impression that design lessons are only useful to public historians and in digital scholarship. Even when publishing a book design is still very important. Think of how color/design of a book cover affects a potential reader. Color can make books stand out on the shelf (think J.D. Salinger), but it can also suggest certain things about your book which you as a scholar may not be entirely comfortable with (see Karen Dixon Vuic). As scholars we can take our understandings of color and discuss more intelligently with our book publishers what we want and why. We already discussed much of this in class several weeks ago, but I think it’s a very important point that cannot be stated enough.

Another issue that this week’s readings and videos have brought up are the ethics of image manipulation. Sheri and David started this conversation. They already touched upon many of my ideas, but I want to explore this issue a little further. Concerns underlying the fears of image manipulation in scholarship are understandable. Yet I don’t think we should really give in to them. First, as I pointed out in my comment to Sheri’s blog, we already frequently manipulate quotes in our scholarship. Scholars drop entire sentences, participles, and the like out of quotes they’re using. We also change tense, capitalization, and pronouns. There are proven methods employed to indicate when we’ve done such. What exactly is the difference between manipulating a quote and an image? Second, this debate reminds me of something that was touched upon in my historiography class last spring. A fellow student asked whether or not a digital copy can be considered a primary or secondary source. It’s a secondary source. Any time a source is copied (whether digitally or on a Xerox or by hand), no matter how faithful it is to the original it automatically becomes a secondary source. Even high-end scanners can make mistakes in color and detail when a source is scanned. Often the colors are enhanced after an image is scanned anyway. Third, even before the digital age images were manipulated in texts. They were flipped, cropped, and perceived imperfections were removed. Furthermore, the very process photography requires some level of manipulation. In some cases the very subject of the image was completely staged by the photographer (such as the  Brady photo of the sharpshooter at Gettysburg). Historians need to employ “signposts” and “breadcrumbs” to indicate manipulation and enhancements. In the caption or image credits information can be provided of where the original came from and perhaps even what was done to alter the photo. These practices are already often employed. Captions often indicate when a photo has been colorized, cropped, or even repaired. Finally, in many museums objects are already stabilized, cleaned, and repaired in a conservation lab before they go on display. This can include using Japanese paper to repair documents, special water baths to remove dirt, and glass plates to smooth out wrinkles. Also objects degrade over time naturally. Rarely do they remain as they were when they were created. The condition of an object is always in a continual flux, so we shouldn’t be afraid to make our own alterations.

Now saying all this doesn’t mean we are given free-license to do whatever we want to images, but it should be something we keep in mind when enhancing our digital objects. Our choices should be reasonably justifiable and clearly indicated in either the caption or image credits. We are not doing anything new or radical. We are simply continuing practices that has been in use for generations. We just need to remember to let our readers in on whatever we did, just as we’ve always done.

Addendum – Some of the other blogs I commented on:

*For my classmates, if you’re interested in reading the article I can give you my copy. It’s a really great piece that describes the three ideologies that shape museums today and then goes on to describe a new methodology for museums.

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Fear and Loathing in History

  1. As many of our classmates have indicated, altering images to suit a purpose is nothing new in the history of imagery. Using images to convey a political idea is an especially powerful tool of the media. But here is where the media diverges from the historians. I believe the “do no harm” mantra is important regardless of what “others” are doing and the best practices for historians as conservators of history should inform our decisions about the presentation of materials.

    • You’re exactly right, scholars shouldn’t alter/enhance images without good reason. And I believe by and large that’s a rule that’s already being employed. There are ways we’ve developed to indicate when something has been changed and a responsible historian will use those methods. Also I was trying to make the point that not only have “others” being manipulating images, but also those within the historical profession. Public historians, in particular, are regularly involved in manipulating objects including images. Exactly how they manipulate the objects depends on whether they are being preserved, conserved, and/or placed in an exhibit. Archaeologists also manipulate artifacts to learn more about them. I wanted to point out that image manipulation isn’t something newly arrived with the development of digital media. There’s a long history of it even in our own profession.

      Now that I think about it, you may have been alluding to that in your post and I just completely missed it.

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  3. As someone who is completely new to the debate in history about the meaning and ethics of altering images, I found your post to be very thought-provoking and enlightening. Your example of how historians manipulate quotes got your point across very clearly, and you didn’t even bring in the art of the paraphrase. I also learned a lot about the way public historians have dealt with the issue of images and history. And again, thanks for the background on the way museums use color as a design element! It’s really interesting to see not only the inner workings of these “industries,” but where they overlap with the world of academic history that I am more familiar with. I like learning about the commonalities.

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  5. I really like your point that leaving the “breadcrumbs” regarding image alteration is already in practice, and comparison between altering quotations and images. Could it be that academic historians in the past have dealt with the issue of image manipulation less directly, perhaps through the intermediary of a publisher responsible for getting reproduction rights, and that the increased self-publication of scholarship on the web now demands that scholars deal with these questions?

    • I think you’re on to something. It’s very possible that we all make the assumption that because we’re dealing with digital media the practices/methods are automatically undetermined (which may or may not be the case). Also like you said most academic historians probably didn’t deal much with images in the past, so the previous assumption is then compounded. Like Sheri said if have a “do no harm” (or make sure any alterations are reasonably justifiable) mantra then we should be fine.

    • You raise a very good point. Curators are very hands-on with most aspects of a design, and usually involved in the process of selecting images and securing the rights, etc. Hence, those of us who have worked as/with curators are also familiar with these headaches. It makes me wonder to what extent photos were manipulated/edited in the 20th century (if nothing else, cropped to make them fit a page) and whether the scholars whose books included the photograph knew or even particularly cared.

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  9. johngarnett100

    You kind of hit the nail on the head with my problems with color: namely that they seem more to be an art and feel then something you could intellectualize and think through in order to “force of will” an aesthetically pleasing site. I sometimes will go through tons of colors and schemes, and really can’t tell which one looks good because most of them just do not look pleasing to me. However, it also seems to be a sort of learned skill in a way because the more I play around with the sites and with color, the more I start to develop “taste” for color. Perhaps now that I am not simply a passive consumer of sites but am actively creating one, it has led me to think about color more and have to think more deeply about it other than whether it looks good or not.

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