The power of image. (More than 50% of the cortex in the human brain is devoted to processing visual input.)
“A picture is worth 1,000 words.”
This session considers how historical content, both factual and opinionated, can be expressed using primarily visual elements. How can we create/express our own histories using visual elements? How can we analyze existing visuals for historical content?
- What are some of the many ways we take in and process information visually? What are the sorts of historical documents that express information through primarily visual means?
- How might we express some aspect of our own historical experience and/or knowledge using primarily visual means?
- Whose histories are most often documented in visual accounts? Whose are often overlooked?
- How do visual images have the power to capture truthful moments? How do visual images have the power to misrepresent events and people?
- From cave paintings to ancient sculptures and other physical structures, our sense of long ago history is rooted more in visual images than in words.
- Prior to modern technology, only the very wealthy could afford to have their images preserved for posterity by having paintings or sculptures made of them.
- Painters often idealized the subjects they painted in order not to offend. Consider these two images of George Washington. The first is what we are used to seeing: an idealized portrait that emphasizes a look of nobility. The second is taken from a life mask of Washington and is arguably much closer to what he really looked like.
Once photography was invented and became used widely to represent historical figures, the same issues persisted. Depending upon how the photograph was produced, it may represent a carefully planned effect or a spontaneously captured moment. Each conveys information, but the impact can be very different. What are examples of famous photographs? Do they seem planned or spontaneous? How does the way they are framed help interpret the scene to viewers? What might be outside the frame that would change our perception of the “truth” of the photograph?
Picture postcards convey a great deal of information about historical eras. What do these two postcards tell us about the history of Greenfield? What questions do they raise that could guide our further research?
Quilts are said to have been used as signaling messages to people escaping slavery. The pattern on the left, “Flying Geese,” may have been hung out on clotheslines to convey the message to follow the geese as they migrate north.
This paper quilt on the right, constructed at The LAVA Center represents something each contributor felt expressed Greenfield to them. What sorts of symbolic patterns, images, colors, etc. might we sew into our own personal history quilt?
A cartoon, circa 1924, commenting on anti-vaccinationists and others ignoring the threat of a deadly disease feels very contemporary and is a good example of a visual image that conveys both fact and opinion. How does the cartoonist in this case make clear their opinion about the figures heading off the cliff using both labels and ways of depicting each character?
Brookie the Trout, a sculpture created by artist John Sendelbach, expresses multiple elements of Greenfield history. Made of cutlery, flatware, and tableware, Brookie honors the industrial heritage of Greenfield, home of the first factory to use the American factory system to produce cutlery.
At the same time, Brookie signals the return of health to the Green River, which means brook trout, once threatened in their native habitat, are re-established.
Cutlery manufacturing historically affected the health of workers exposed to large doses of metallic dust and remains an issue in Greenfield, where ingredients and chemicals used in the process of making the items persist in the soil requiring remediation long after the factories themselves have closed. What is the current status of cleanup at the Lunt factory site on Federal Street? Have you read about it in our local news?
The mural in Veterans’ Mall, Greenfield, celebrates the history, ways of life, flora, and fauna of our region, including brook trout (see Brookie the Trout), bees, agriculture, Poet’s Seat, and more. Is it as complete a picture of our community as it was when first created in 1990 by artist Rebecca Tippens? What has changed since then? If it were to be extended, what would you add to represent as much of our city as possible? For another example of a mural aiming at inclusivity, see Great Wall of Los Angeles (Mural) (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
Finally, for a cautionary tale on how images can be manipulated to create falsehoods rather than truths, see Photograph of Cliff Hanger Isn’t Quite What It Seems | Snopes.com.
Project Suggestions and Ways to Practice
- Make a collage or paper quilt that is composed of primarily visual images that represent something in your personal history, in the history of your family, or in the history of your community.
- Using the worksheets at the National Archives (linked above), analyze a photograph or other visual image from the Library of Congress (also linked above). Use “Greenfield, MA” as your search term to find historical images of Greenfield.
- Look at a range of editorial cartoons to analyze how each cartoonist conveys their own sense of what is true. Look for multiple “truths” about the same issue from different cartoonists.
- Draw your own editorial cartoon about a current local or national issue.
- Photograph 10 scenes that represent “your” Greenfield or an area of it today.