Same Shoes

No one will question the importance of pictorial records, although professional historians in general have not often made them a matter of serious study. In fact, the most surprising circumstance is that many historians, professionals, and amateurs alike, who are most meticulous about documenting their written manuscripts with source notes and arguments, use illustrations without the least attempt at documenting the source or authenticity of the illustrations used. This practice is so common that it seems invidious to single out any one case for criticism.

. . . Unfortunately seldom is there available all the information which we would desire in forming a complete and competent judgment on any artists’ work so far as its value to the social historian goes. The same comment, of course, could be made on the written record upon which our present histories are based. The same procedures, therefore, in passing judgment on the pictorial record must be employed as is employed in the examination of the written record, namely, to utilize the information that is available to the best of our ability and intelligence. (Robert Taft, Artists and Illustrators of the Old West 1850-1900 [1953], p. 249, 251)

All too often, historians regard “picture research” as secondary to their real purpose, and visual images as inherently inferior to literary ones. They turn to images when they want to illustrate a point they have already made with other evidence, instead of turning to pictures as potential sources of historical evidence, different in content or quality from what can be obtained elsewhere. The meaning of photographs, or pictures in general, is rarely self-evident, and the cavalier use of historical images as illustrations in historical texts (all too often as publisher-imposed afterthoughts) frequently undercuts the careful logic and attention to the rules of evidence with which the literary argument has been built.

A lingering bias in historical training teaches would-be historians to value the literary over the visual or material, and teaches them to query, challenge, and interpret literary documents, while leaving them few analytical skills for the interpretation of visual records. It is a bias that pervades more general education as well. We are a nation of readers, but our visual literacy lags far behind our capacity to read and understand words. I argue here, however, that photographs can, indeed, be rich primary source documents; they deserve and reward the careful sort of historical attention more often lavished on literary texts. (Martha Sandweiss, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West [2002] p. 7)