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VISUAL MATERIALS AS PRIMARY SOURCES

Visual materials cover the whole range of non-verbal and non-auditory materials. They encompass a wide range of forms: photographs, cinema and video films, videotapes, paintings, drawings, prints, designs, three-dimensional art such as sculpture and architecture. They may or may not be representational, and some may include writing or printing. Some can be categorized as fine art, others as documentary record. Originality may or may not be important, and the content may or may not be the primary focus. Some such materials are unique documents, while others are reproducible to a limited or unlimited extent. Examples of the latter include illustrations in books and magazines.

"One picture is worth a thousand words," as the saying goes. Visual resources are a peculiarly direct and telling source of encounter with the past, even if the image cannot always be taken as truthful - thus, the images of orphans used by Dr. Bernardo in nineteenth-century London for fundraising purposes are not always what they seem. Equally, some ethnographic materials from the past used in the study of eugenics need very careful interpretation now. This is the past at its most immediate, valuable for its record of social and cultural life (even if inevitably somewhat distorted in its art form by its purpose as something other than an accurate record). The scenes of devastation seem in photographs of the First World War battlefields in northern France can be just as telling - sometimes more so - than first-hand written accounts and the poetry of a Wilfrid Owen or Edward Thomas.

ORIGINAL ART

Single paintings, drawings, watercolors, graphic art, sculpture, architectural drawings and plans, monoprints: these are the forms in which original art is packaged, one-off items with a unique value either as evidence or as art of cultural object or icon. Museums, art galleries, and libraries are the main easily accessible sources; if their holdings are not fully on display, catalogs are generally readily available even if not always easy to use. Ordinary life and the world of work and industry have been included among appropriate subjects for art well before the paintings of the Industrial Revolution in England by Joseph Wright of Derby and the nineteenth century, when they became common. Medieval manuscripts such as the Books of Hours of the Duc de Berri and early texts of Piers Plowman frequently show scenes from everyday work, and the Dutch painters of the seventeenth century adopted scenes from ordinary domestic life and from low life as appropriate subjects for painting. There were even devices, such as the camera obscura, panoramas, optical viewing apparatus and peep-shows, to confer on the pictures an even greater feeling of reality for the viewer. Art works can be more telling than one expects - the powerful portrait of Winston Churchill by Graham Sutherland is now known only through photographs because it showed a reality about the wartime British leader's pugnacity and truculence that its subject strongly disliked (Churchill's wife burned the portrait, while Sutherland claimed that he painted its subject thus because that was the character which he showed him). David's painting of the assassinated Marat in his bathtub shows the idealized revolutionary martyr. Genre scenes from Dutch painting, displaying ordinary or low life, have been used extensively by Simon Schama in The embarrassment of riches to tell us in great detail about the lives of the middle and lower classes; similarly, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European paintings such as those of Kathe Kollwitz, show in terms of stark realism the hardships of working life of the day.

Pictorial art is inevitably interpretation of reality; yet the artist's vision can often bring us into uncomfortably close contact with the reality of the past, just as often as it can transport us into a world which is quite clearly idealized.

Architecture, either as design or as reality, offers us other ways of access to the past - to the buildings' own statements of how they were perceived functionally and in terms of importance; they also can, with help, tell us much about how they were used and about their occupants' way of life.

     EXAMPLES: Yale Art Gallery, Yale Center for British Art, Lewis Walpole Library (a Yale library located in Farmington CT), New Britain Museum of American Art, Wadsworth Athenaeum (Hartford), Beinecke Library (especially the Osborn Collection and the Western Americana Collection).

PRINTS

Prints are art works reproduced in multiple copies; these include graphic art, etchings, engravings, lithographs, woodcuts, mezzotints, posters, trade cards, artists' prints, computer-generated graphics, and book illustration. This is the art of mass-production, Walter Benjamin's "reproducible work of art". This category includes many of the great illustrated works of the past - you can, for instance, gain a superb understanding of Renaissance mining and iron-making technology from Agricola's great sixteenth-century treatise, De re metallica , with its superb woodcuts. Book illustration in general is an important informational source, not to be overlooked. Topographical works and prints have a long and distinguished history in the recording of landscape and the built environment, especially in its grander manifestations - the world of work has been more the province of the photographer until recently.

     EXAMPLES: Lewis Walpole Library (a Yale library located in Farmington CT) for eighteenth-century British subjects, the Beinecke Library, Yale Center for British Art Library

PHOTOGRAPHS

Photography means "drawing with light". Generally we mean by it images taken with a camera and reproducible from a photographic negative, though not all forms conform to this - early forms like the Ambrotype are negatives printed on glass which appear as a positive image when black velvet is placed behind them, while modern Polaroid prints are directly developed images.

Photographs are a more recent technology and art, but they have been around for longer than is generally realized. Photography was invented more or less simultaneously in England by Fox Talbot and in France by Daguerre in 1839. Although they can be as untruthful as some forms of art, photographs have a considerable evidential value which makes them a particularly productive resource. Even poor photographs can have value as a unique record. Like all other forms of visual resources, they convey information about vanished worlds, demolished buildings, forgotten customs and ways of life. You can see before your eyes the opposing sides in the Civil War, the horrors of life in the trenches in the First World War and the even greater enormities of the Holocaust, just as you can see the discovery of the American landscape of the Yosemite in the photographs of Ansel Adams. Magazines such as Picture post set half a century and more ago the now familiar trend for photo-documentary for popular consumption, and they appear as book and journal illustration.

     EXAMPLES: the Beinecke Library for photographs of nineteenth-century America, the Mary Evans Picture Library (London), the BBC Hulton Picture Library (London)

FILMS

The moving image is even newer than photography. Even more than its slightly older forerunner the still photograph, the resources need use with care. There is a rich world of footage of documentary films and newsreels, some of which has unfortunately been lost forever. At its best, this medium allows the closest of all approaches to the the past - Chamberlain returning from his 1938 visit to Hitler waving his notorious "bit of paper" which he thought brought a guarantee of peace, Hitler's address to the Nuremberg rally. News footage has recorded, both for the cinema newsreel and for television the recent history of past wars in great detail; some of it is readily available on commercial videotapes and increasingly on multi-media CD-ROMs. The weekly newsreels have now been superseded by the much greater immediacy of television, and in archives, such as that at Vanderbilt University, you can follow specialized daily and even hourly news collections such as that for the 1991 Gulf War and the attempted coup in the Soviet Union in the same year. This is history recorded at the moment of its being made - a trade-off between the ultimate in immediacy and the lack of clarity that reflection and a broader time-scale would produce.

Video is the medium of recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors for the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale. A form of oral history recording which supersedes the use of the audio tape recorder but does not entirely replace it, the immediacy of seeing the person recounting their own experiences and reacting to them after the lapse of many years which have not dimmed their recollection has a particularly powerful effect on the viewer.

     EXAMPLES: Television News Archive, Vanderbilt University; Museum of the Moving Image (London)


Acknowledgement
This material is based on the Web site created to support a series of colloquia in historical research offered by the Yale University Library. The initial site was prepared in August 1996 by Suzanne Lorimer, Susanne Roberts, Margaret Powell, George Miles, Fred Musto, Emily Horning, Cesar Rodriguez, Nancy Godleski, Richard Williams, Elizabeth Pauk, and Martha Brogan.

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This file last modified 09/28/05
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