Showing and telling

One of the things I’ve been working on lately is a short video to accompany a Civil War exhibit, which opens next month in D.C.  We’re lucky to have a TV/radio center on campus with a professional staff; they’ve been handling the recording and editing.  All I had to do was give them the narration and accompanying images, so I’ve been spending quite a bit of time looking at wartime photographs and engravings.

Every history buff has probably had the experience of watching a documentary and noting an image that doesn’t exactly match up with the narration—a photo of casualties at Antietam during a segment on a battle in Tennessee, for example. There are so many great Civil War images that it’s easy to criticize filmmakers for this sort of thing, but sometimes the most “correct” picture isn’t necessarily the right one.

And sometimes you have to sacrifice accuracy in one direction for the sake of accuracy in another. Let’s say you’ve got a first-person voice-over taken from a primary source, in which someone recounts his first impressions upon meeting Lincoln in 1861. The text emphasizes his long legs, hollow face, and overall awkwardness. Ideally, you’d accompany this voice-over with a picture of Lincoln that really shows off these physical qualities, like this one:

That photo isn’t from 1861. In this case, though, the writer’s visual impression of Lincoln is what matters.  Chronological concerns aren’t as important, at least in my opinion.

But what if the subject is Willie Lincoln’s death and its tremendous emotional toll on the president?  This photo of a worn, haggard-looking Lincoln would suit the tone:

But this sitting was a few years after Willie died.  You could probably make a legitimate case that using this photo to illustrate that event is a little bit misleading.  It wouldn’t be a major point of criticism, but it would still be a valid one.

I’ve done quite a bit of image acquisition before; back when I was putting together exhibits for a living, it seemed like I spent all my time poring over Civil War photographs. But this video project is a different animal, because you don’t have as much room to explain the images the audience is seeing. Film is a visual medium, of course, so you’d think it would be particularly well suited to the use of historic images. With an exhibit, however, you’ve got the luxury of adding a detailed caption to the pictures you’re using, giving you the opportunity to qualify, annotate, and explain them.  Video doesn’t give you the chance to do that.  You’ve got a little more freedom in your use of imagery, but it comes with some added risk.

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2 Comments

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War

2 responses to “Showing and telling

  1. Pingback: Remember that Civil War exhibit in Washington, D.C. | Past in the Present

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