What is the Visualizing the Past Project?
Images can be challenging to interpret, but they shouldn’t be frustrating to locate and use. In association with the University of Southern California’s Visual Culture Graduate Certificate, The Visualizing the Past Project aims to provide scholars with the access and information necessary to incorporate images into historical research. To this end, the Visualizing the Past Project site provides a library of collections of digitized imagery, an interactive bibliography for scholars interested in learning more about the history of visual culture, and a usage guide for students and scholars unsure how to cite images in their work.
Why Visualize the Past?
Historical scholarship has long been organized around the printed word. Most of us are trained to wrest information from prose. We seek evidence on the pages of books and published reports, newspapers and pamphlets, letters and diaries. As we develop as scholars, we learn to examine narratives in more sophisticated ways, looking for textual clues that will provide new insights.
But images? Images are slippery. They are saturated with incidental details, uncertain meanings, incongruous suggestions. They rarely conform to the comfortable customs of prose or poetry. Instead, they obey different (and ever changing) conventions. While scholars of art history and cinema studies have long focused on visual evidence and pictorial convention, historians are just beginning to borrow the techniques and knowledge developed in these fields. Those fields traditionally devoted to visual media have, in turn, embraced a more democratic conception of the history of images, using historians’ tools to probe the pictures that saturated daily life but have never been featured in art history surveys.
As a result of this visual turn and the increasing interdisciplinarity of historical study, no scholar can afford to ignore the image as a form of evidence. As scholars of visual culture have argued, we need to understand the history of images to navigate our way through the image-saturated present. This requires us to confront visual depictions of the past. Now, more than ever, images are becoming subjects of inquiry and sources of evidence. We need to learn to pry information from pictures. We must train ourselves to interpret the image as handily as we do the printed word. We have to learn to consider imagery as obvious a historical resource as text.
Yet it’s hard to use images in historical research. After all, libraries are usually organized around print. Archives and libraries don’t always acknowledge the presence or content of the images embedded in the printed materials on their shelves. Historical images often lack discernible authors, titles, or easily defined subjects and keywords, making them difficult to locate in library catalogues. The slide libraries on which art historians have long depended have rarely included the anonymous or “low” images that art historians now confront in their research. Not only are historical images challenging to find, they can be expensive to study. Images on microfilm come out in a black smear, forcing scholars to travel to archives; archives that charge 10 or 15 cents to copy a page of text routinely charge 25 or 50 dollars to reproduce an image for study.