Creating images and changing images and the distinction between those was the subject of the reading this week. For me, it recalled a class I took in my undergrad days called “True Fiction” – the subject of the class was the way in which film, photography, and books exist in the area between fact and fiction. In effect, these are objects are mediated- created with intent and interpreted by others with intent. We watched Errol Morris’s film “A Thin Blue Line” in an effort to draw attention to the way in which documents and photographs are mediated by their creators and their audience, and to drive home the idea that a film, like Morris’s, can be simultaneously “truth” and “fiction”.
The take away from that class, for me, was that we should be critical consumers of information and that there are always multiple interpretations. An idea that serves me well as a historian in estimating the value and meaning of my findings at an archive.
The reading today and our recent work on producing digital history has highlighted a related but distinct constellation of concerns.
When we photoshop a historical image, removing imperfections like dust, scratches and tears. Are we reducing the object’s value as a historical artifact? When it comes to editing photos I admit a level of uncertainty. Am I destroying the “truth” of an image by cleaning it up? Or giving it to an audience to be best appraised? Am I distorting some reality by cropping, orienting or reversing an image so it sits prettier on my website? Or driving my argument by making it flow cleanly across the page?
In the production of scholarship we have a responsibility in shaping the interpretation of historical objects. We critically assess what we’ve found by asking about intent and meaning and interrogating the record and seeing what shakes out. We do a great deal to frame the interpretation, we argue one thing or another and we dig up contextual information to locate what we’ve found in time and space.
But then we take all that stuff out and, in the pursuit of our argument, piece it together in a way that makes sense to us. In a way that reflects history as we understand it.
The answer to my question about photoshopping images comes in being transparent about making changes. It builds on a practice that we all already engage in. When I quote from a book I remove the author’s words from their context and in some ways distort its meaning. When I reproduce handwritten documents in neatly formed text I’ve distanced the text from the author. And when I utilize an image I have removed it from its context and reproduced it digitally. The thing is, we do it by making it expressly clear that this is a smaller piece of a larger work. We already add footnotes and citations to text, similarly, we should provide the audience with a clear idea of whether or not the image has been changed and where they can seek the original source.
I’m curious to see how others responded to the reading this week. In the meantime, I’ve already engaged in altering the historical record, as you can see below. I used the helpful tutorials to crop and make some repairs to a damaged photo. I made it a bit easier to see by cleaning up the image.