Picture This…

Close your eyes and imagine wandering around a city in a foreign country. You’re alone and you don’t know the language. All of a sudden it begins to pour. You run for shelter and find yourself in an art gallery. Disoriented and a bit soggy, you begin meandering through an exhibit. You see a series of abstract paintings, lined up along a wall. Each has similar brush strokes, form and symbolism. They are obviously in a series, but you can’t read the curator’s statement or the captions. All you can do is stare, wonder, react, and interpret. By the time the storm passes, you’ve failed to make sense of it all and take a fleeting mental note to Google the artist’s name.

David Staley, in his article “Sequential Art and Historical Narrative: A Visual History of Germany“, seeks to convince his audience that stringing together superficially connected images with little or no textual explanation is an under-utilized means of narrating history. His (painfully titled) ‘graphical article’ about Germany’s relationship with modern transportation during the 1940’s-1950’s, “explores the meaningful juxtaposition of visual primary sources as a serious form of historical narrative.”

Staley cites Michael Stanford’s 5 design principles for doing history as 1) asking questions, 2) seeking relevant primary source evidence, 3) weighing the value of these various sources, 4) Discerning patterns in the evidence and 5) Arranging evidence into a meaningful narrative strung together by words, sentences and paragraphs. The author believes that, by following this method, professional historians can as effectively convey information using deliberately ordered images as they can by using deliberately chosen words.

What Staley calls a ‘graphical article’ is persuaded by the conventions of design rather than prose, and seeks to ‘separate form from content.’  This concept is derived from the “sequential art” of Will Eisner, a celebrated comic book writer/illustrator and founder of the graphic novel. Sequential art, Staley reminds us, is perhaps the most ancient form of visual communication. Glyphs etched into pyramid walls, patterns stitched into tapestries, friezes painted in temples, are stories told through images. Thus using imagery to tell the story of history is in and of itself a historical practice.

The author relates that the job of the ‘sequential art’ designer is to close this conceptual space, aka ‘The Gutter’, between relatively situated images. “Closure in the gutter is a transitional realm that links two images, not unlike the way a transitional sentence links two paragraphs together in a logical sequence (just like this sentence has done).” To do so, designers must rely on “non-linear, conceptual and associative” interpretive powers of their audience.

This, in my opinion, is where Staley’s dialectic breaks down. Like our abstract art exhibit from before, there is usually significance to anything intentionally put into a series. But if the viewer doesn’t understand the question being answered, let alone being asked, then all that’s left is subjectivity on both sides. Staley should not assume that my “meaning of the Volkswagen is altered when an image of Hitler admiring an early prototype is placed in a sequence that includes displaced persons hauled by train.” That is his interpretation, which he has chosen not to spell out. All I can do is consider my own subjective reaction based on my potentially limited prior knowledge the image’s context.

Maybe there is no way around subjectivity in the field of history, using words, images or otherwise. I believe Staley’s argument evocative, but underdeveloped. And if I were a professional historian looking for images of VWs during WWII and came across David Staley’s graphical article… I would probably just go to Flickr.