Images have always been used as aids in presenting historical narratives. They enliven texts, preserve memory, and incite emotional reactions. But how often have images alone told a substantive story? Daniel J. Staley of Heidelberg College attempts to convey how visual culture itself can provide a historical narrative without being supplemental to written accounts.
As Staley argues, placing certain images within a sequential order can create a meaningful and expressive account of history. Images should no longer be limited to complementing textbooks and museum exhibits. Staley believes that images, when arranged in an appropriate design, can stand alone as serious historical narratives. He terms this visual arrangement “sequential art,” illustrated through his own example of German history. Just as written narratives are told by arranging patterns of evidence into a structural format, so too can images be arranged to express an equally compelling narrative.
The key to “reading” sequential art is in the interpretation of the arrangement. Staley argues that sequential art only works when visual connections between images are discernible. The act of filling in the space (or “gutter”) between two images is called “closure.” Closure allows the viewer to interpret the connection between two images, establishing the context of the images within a storyline. Staley compares this to the transitional sentence between two paragraphs in a written account. If the two images are placed in a different sequence, the narrative changes.
So, does Staley’s visual representation of German history hit the mark? As mentioned in the article (or written supplement, as is stated), Staley’s visual concept would not suffice if each image were isolated, just as a written essay would not suffice with a single paragraph. His ordering of images presents a narrative that begins with Nazi Germany and concludes with efforts to revive the nation during the period of postwar reconstruction. He uses not just historic photographs but drawings and advertisements. Going through this visual narrative before reading the written supplement, I immediately understood the connection between the images as modes of transportation (trains, planes and automobiles!) and how these are represented within each image (comfort, mass transport, safety, speed, economic resurgence, etc). But how effectively does sequential art serve as historical narrative?
Questions to consider include: How prompted do you think professional historians will be to jump on the “sequential art” bandwagon? How effectively do images tell a story without the supplement of text? What happens to a visual narrative if certain images have been doctored? Do the images in Staley’s visual representation of German history speak “a thousand words?” And if so, what exactly is his “visual thesis?”
And finally, who can translate German??
Being a Public History student, I understand the importance of visual culture in telling history. Pictures do truly speak a thousand words. But for me, sequential art is not an equally viable alternative to written narratives. This should not undermine the importance of images – they are highly effective when engaging the historical imagination. But images cannot always speak for themselves, even within a visual sequence. Though, perhaps the merit in sequential art is in its nature to stimulate debate, as well as its endorsement for historical interpretation. What are your thoughts?