International School History - Skills - Sourcework - The usefulness of historical sources

Visual Art
  An examination paper without a visual source is very rare these days. Unfortunately, the source that is chosen, rarely has any genuine artistic merit. Propaganda posters and political cartoons allow students to make routine comments about reliability and little else. And yet great visual art - principally painting s and photographs - can provide a unique and powerful insight into past civilisation.
Strengths   Limitations
The value of visual art is partly captured by the old adage "A picture is worth a thousand words". This can be applied to both the quantity and quality of the information conveyed. A single image can provide a significant amount of relevant information that might otherwise have to be described in a long written form. But more importantly images can also convey qualities of the past that are very difficult or impossible to convey in words.

Why do advertisers use images rather than detailed descriptions to sell their products? Describing in words the content of an image or moving images is impossible beyond the superficial, surface features. An image may have the power to shock and move the viewer to tears; a description can only be a pale imitation, like a poem translated from a foreign language. Trying to explain in words what Picasso's Guernica means is almost pointless. As the aphorism says, ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’,

Democratisation of photography in the 20th century means that the common man and woman now share a visual representation from the past with the rich oil paintings from earlier times.

  Visual art like literary art is under no obligation to be anything other than artistic. Even photographs which appear to be chemical or digital reflections of reality, are subject to artistic priorities in their execution. The painter (or his patron) chooses what and how to paint and the photographer selects what is in and outside of the frame. The subjects whose image is taken may behave differently in the knowledge that they are being painted or photographed.

In societies where media is strictly controlled censorship and propaganda images may be used to serve the political interests of the state. Even photographs may be manipulated (airbrushed) to remove current embarrassments from the past.

The value of the photograph is limited to the ocular, what can be seen by the eye. The other four senses are ignored.

Air brushing has been done since since photography was invented. See this interesting piece in Spiegel online.

On photographs, the authority on film documentary writes: 'This remarkable power of the photographic image cannot be underestimated, even though it is subject to qualification because

• An image cannot tell everything we want to know about happened
• Images can be altered both during and after the fact by both conventional and digital techniques
• A verifiable, authentic image does not necessarily guarantee the validity of larger claims made about what the image represents or means.' Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, p.42.

Hiroshima 1945
How would you begin to effectively describe this scene in words?
Napoleon by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1806.
What does this image tell us about Napoleon's self image?

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