Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Method For Using Military Images - Part 4: Burke and Some Conclusions for Reading Inbetween the Lines


In my last post, I looked at three types of images which Burke discusses for reading inbetween the lines. From his discussion, I pulled some helpful pointers for actually implementing his strategy with military images. I mentioned there that Burke claims that many folks are under the impression that artists were concerned to give accurate testimony. I for one have been under such an impression, viewing military images as mirrored likenesses of the past. I have done so willingly, because I want the most direct links to my historical subject. Artists, however, rarely carry such concerns. Thus my assumptions about military images, and therefore the conclusions I have drawn from them, are seriously compromised. Ultimately I want truth about military history (hence this blog!), therefore I am happy to be corrected by Burke and am thankful for his work and the work of others (which I will continue to discuss in this series on A Method for Using Military Images). Below are some of Burke's concluding thoughts, and them some of my own.


Burke’s Conclusion

Burke concludes by iterating a few points that he has returned to throughout the book. For one, all images have a message, they all bear testimony. But almost no images were created to express messages that modern historians are interested in. Even so, if we are careful, we can “read between the lines” of those messages to find evidence of the past that the image was not expressly intended to give. Reading between the lines is dangerous; the trick is getting good evidence from an indifferent, or even hostile, source. Though he is careful to tell us he did not write a “how to” book for reading between the lines, he does sum up some general pointers in his closing thoughts.
  1. Images do not give access to the social aspects of the world in the past, but instead to contemporary views of the world.
  2. The testimony of images needs to be placed in the cultural, political, material (and so on) context of its time and place. Further, the artistic conventions of the period, as well as the interests of the artist, his audience, and his client, and the intended function of the image, all need to be taken into consideration. Stated another way, to correctly utilize an image, the military historian must be “visually literate.” 
  3. A group of images from the time and place, taken together, offer better testimony than an image viewed in isolation. 
  4. By noting small details that the maker did not know he was including, the viewer can read between the lines for information the image was not intended to give.

Closing Thoughts

All in all, Burke’s book is thoughtful and an insightful tool for thinking about military images. Though he spends only part of his time discussing military images specifically, almost everything he has to say about other types of images has application to using military images. Burk is careful to state up front that his purpose was not write a “how to” book for using images for testimony of the past – and he certainly (frustratingly) does not. Nevertheless, Burke does provide many helpful tips, in the form of possible pitfalls/mistakes, cautions, the sorts of questions to ask about an image before analyzing it, and the type of knowledge necessary to begin answering those questions and pumping the image for information.
     Overall, Burke is optimistic about the kind of information we can take from historical images, as well as how much information we can take. Yet we can really safely use an image if we have an appropriate degree of knowledge about the general genre, the piece specifically, and its creator. What a big if! In fact, this criteria is way too high for anyone to satisfy except the full-time military/art historian. We don’t have to give up hope though. There are plenty of art historians out there who do good work and are willing to help the rest of us along. I will have more to say in the conclusion of me A Method for Using Military Images series. Briefly stated though, it is our job, as military historians (even novice ones), to get a hold of art historians, clearly explain our project and what we want to use an image for, and ask specific questions about it that the art historian can answer and gauge better what exactly we are after. We need synergy of disciplines so that we can get synergy of artifacts!

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