Truthiness, or There are Known Knowns and Unknown Knowns (Part I)

This week we continue our exploration into the Photoshop. Last week Sheri raised some really interesting questions about the ethics of photo manipulation which ended up starting a great discussion. I believe in all at least half of the participants in Clio II wrote a blog in response or at least mentioned the discussion. It become one of those moments in which our discussion outside of class bled into our class period and made for a really great evening, as David mentioned in a follow-up post. I found that the seven-part piece written by Errol Morris to be a really great addition to our discussion. The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock explores the debate about how “authentic” the Farm Security Administration photographs are. The piece is at it’s best when Morris sticks to narrative, but he inserts extensive portions of transcripts from his interviews with scholars and large block quotes* which break up the flow. And as it is a seven-part series it meanders to it’s point, but that’s no entirely a problem because there is much to explore in this debate. Morris touches upon ideas of truth, authenticity, artistic integrity, realism/naturalism (as in the artistic and literary philosophies), and historical analysis (just to name but a few). All of these topics I find immensely fascinating, but there were two things that I felt were truly important to our discussion. What are our responsibilities as historians and how exactly do images help us achieve them.

During Morris’ interview with historian James Curtis, Curtis raises the point that photography must be subject to a similar type of critical analysis as the documents we use are. According to Curtis:

If historians want to use photographs as evidence in the true sense, and put them in the context in which they originally appeared, then you come up with questions about posing. I was just trying to urge my fellow historians to use the same evidentiary practice and technique on photographs that they would use on written documents, that photographs have a point of view. And, despite the fact that the photographers say that they are just snapping what’s in front of them, they often go out in the field with a very definite idea of what they want to return with.(emphasis added)

As historians we are always critical of our source material. Any good historiography class will teach young scholars about looking for bias, point-of-view, and motivation. It should also touch upon the notoriously unstable nature of memory. These are just some of the main things we consider when we read our sources. As an example, any historian working with Inquisition documents knows that the material illuminates as much as it obfuscates. Those Inquisition judges weren’t known for their impartiality. Also, personal journals and letters are a great source, but those authors aren’t entirely reliable either. Dolly Madison is never really honest with herself or anyone else when it comes to her son. We read source materials critically, we have to. Otherwise we aren’t doing our job correctly. Yet when it comes to images, particularly with photography, we often assume that the same problems aren’t present. With other forms of visual art bias, intent, and such explicitly apparent or at least automatically assumed. Perhaps that’s because it seems that so much more of the artist and their patrons go into making of those modes of art. Whereas with photography it appears that the artist finds something “as God made it” and snaps a photo. This isn’t so true, it’s only a perception. In the very least, as Curtis points out, the photographer is making choices about what to photograph. As historians it’s our responsibility to consider these facts when using photographs.

That brings me to my (and Morris’) final point. Scholars may debate ad nauseam about the authenticity of the FSA photographs. Which ones were posed, staged, and crafted to portray a reality that the photographers and their governmental employers wanted people to see. But at the time the photos were taken no one can deny that the Great Depression wasn’t real. There was a massive drought in the Mid-West. The Dust Bowl was real. People were suffering. Economies across the globe has collapsed. It was a traumatic time in history. So what if the photographs don’t portray reality as it actually occurred on the very day that those photos were taken? As Bill Ganzel says in the article, each photograph “portrays a larger reality.” Does it matter that FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein moved a cow skull ten feet or staged a severe dust storm? Again Ganzel says it best:

There’s no one that can deny that the dust was in the air. Darrell [a subject of one of Rothstein’s photos] would have stories of what the dust was all about, or how the dust affected them. For instance, when his dad got caught out in the dust storm one time and couldn’t find his way back because the dust was so thick, he finally came across one of their barbed wire fences. And he followed it back to the chicken coop and went inside the chicken coop to keep out of the dust. So whether that particular day was exactly as dusty as it looks like in the photograph, I’m not concerned with. It portrays a larger reality.

However, I don’t think that the debate isn’t important. In fact I’m glad that it has occurred because it adds another layer to our understanding of the image as source material. As historians we need to make our readers (users) aware of such issues. It’s imperative that we leave enough “breadcrumbs” and “signposts” for our readers to understand the context of the photos we use. Captions, image credits, and footnotes are the place for such things. This is particularly true if your work is on the Dust Bowl and not on the controversy surrounding the photos themselves.

I know that as historians we prioritize the facts and the past-as-it-was, as we should. But there is also something to be said of the past-as-it’s-perceived. Both greatly affect the present; the stories-that-we-tell-ourselves have as much power to shape our world as the stories-as-they-actually-occurred. In fact some historians like Susan Lee Johnson have written entire books exploring the tensions between the two (BTW Johnson’s book is excellent). According to author Tim O’Brien “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” As historians we can employ this to help us tell our “happening-truths.”

(in a vaguely related) Note: While reading The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock I serendipitously discovered the “Inspect Element” function found in the right-click menu of Firefox (I later discovered it is also an option on Chrome, but surprise, surprise not an option on IE). When you right-click on an element on a website and choose “Inspect Element” you can see the HTML and CSS code that defines that element. That way you don’t have to wade through all the code (found under the Web Developer>View Page Source options) to find a specific aspect of page to emulate it. Brilliant!

Editor’s Note: David and Richard both wrote really good blogs about the the restoration capabilities of Photoshop. They also provided some good examples of the the work they accomplished based on the lynda.com tutorial and other readings assigned this week. I suggest you check out both of their posts.

Addendum – Some of the other blogs I commented on:

*I tried to keep my two block quotes as short as possible.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Truthiness, or There are Known Knowns and Unknown Knowns (Part I)

  1. Once again, we’re on the same page. I noticed that you’d posted but didn’t read until after I’d finished my own. Only to discover we are both talking about the importance of reading non-textual sources with the same critical appraisal we bring to texts. I would say it’s a museums thing, but I definitely learned it from my professor in Scotland who used 18th c prints extensively in her work.

  2. Pingback: » H697 Images and other non-textual sources Megan R. Brett

  3. I really found Morris’ interview with James Curtis fascinating. Curtis arguing that photography must be subject to a similar type of critical analysis as the documents we use is something I never really contemplated. In the history I’ve read I usually just look at the photos/images/maps as nice window dressing to illuminate a point. I guess now I’ll be a bit more circumspect!

    • I totally agree. The interview with Curtis was really great. I felt that Stott came off as a tad curmudgeonly in his interview. I don’t know if that’s because he is a curmudgeon or if was Morris’ intent to shape the interview in that way. Also, was it just me or was anyone else left with the impression that Evans became a hoarder in his old age? I mean really who collects trash and keeps it by his bedside?!

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  5. Pingback: Truthiness, or There are Known Knowns and Unknown Knowns (Part II) | History Wired

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