When did people start smiling in photos?

Images in history and politics

Prof. Dr. Michael Sauer

To person

Prof. Dr. Michael Sauer is Professor of History Didactics at the Georg-August University in Göttingen. He has published books and numerous essays on history didactics, literary didactics and the history of education and is co-editor of the journals "Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Studium" and "Learn Geschichte".

As historical sources, images led a shadowy existence for a long time - wrongly, because they offer a wealth of knowledge. For which subject areas are they particularly suitable? What methodological problems are there when dealing with images?

In popular historical books and magazines, images are mostly used as illustrations to present history in a vivid and entertaining way. This is often based on an overly simple understanding of the character of historical images. They are understood as an immediate and realistic reproduction of reality, as it were as a window to the past. Historical images certainly show the past, but they do so in a mediated and broken way. For historians, images - like texts or testimonials - belong to the so-called sources. These are the legacies of the past from which we draw our knowledge of them.


The most diverse types of images come into question as historical sources. On the one hand, they can be differentiated according to image techniques, forms of presentation and distribution: painting with a painting, mural or book illumination; the woodcut as a book illustration or as a leaflet; copper engraving and lithography, used, for example, for posters, picture sheets or postcards; photography and - if you add three-dimensional works of art - sculpture. On the other hand, genres can be defined by their themes or specific intended effects: pictures of people, landscapes, posters or caricatures. Such distinctions are not glass bead games, because it is important to know what knowledge one can expect from a genre, what its specific means or conventions of representation were, if any, and what was its contemporary distribution and impact.

Pictures of historical events

Pictures can only ever be sources for when they were created. A history picture from the 19th century cannot give us any historical information about the rituals of the conclusion of a contract in the Carolingian era, but at most provide information about the historical knowledge, ideas and projections of the artist and his contemporaries.

Pictures can document that certain historical events took place, under what circumstances this happened, who was involved, etc. The woodcuts with which the leaflets and pamphlets of the early modern period were provided, as well as the wood or steel engravings in the, often served this purpose early illustrated sheets of the 19th century, and of course most of today's press photos have this task. Battles, sieges, surrenders, peace treaties, strikes, revolutions, councils, coronations, murders and executions - above all main and state actions - have been recorded in pictures and handed down. However, one must be careful with such sources.
The Prague window lintel, copper engraving by Mathäus Merian the Elder. Ä. 1635 (& copy wikipedia.de)
Take, for example, the well-known copperplate engraving by Mathäus Merian the Elder. Ä., Which shows the "Prague window lintel" from 1618, the trigger of the Thirty Years' War. Merian's depiction only appeared years later, namely in 1635. And of course he did not see what was happening with his own eyes, but rather designed the scene based on second-hand information in a way that seemed appropriate and effective to him. It is therefore a more or less contemporary approach to the event, but not an authentic representation.

The history picture

The same applies to the - already mentioned - genre of the history picture. History pictures are by definition pictures that show the past. However, many history painters have also made their own present their subject. The term "history picture" is nevertheless justified because the present is not actually shown here as the present, but as the future past. The painter is convinced that the current event is significant and will make history. He anticipates this process of historicization, as it were. Even when artists were direct eyewitnesses of an event, they did not simply paint a picture of the event, but interpreted and exaggerated it in their own way.

Such images have been praised for their "photographic accuracy", but they weren't photos. As an example, a painting by Anton von Werner, the most respected and influential German history painter in the last third of the 19th century.
Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm on the corpse of General Abel Douay, August 4th, 1870 Hechingen, Hohenzollern Castle
It bears the long title "Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm on the corpse of General Abel Douay (Weißenburg, August 4, 1870)" and shows a scene from the Franco-German War of 1870/71. The fact that the place and date are included in the title suggests the utmost authenticity. However, the painter himself was not an eyewitness, and the picture was only created twenty years after the event. Von Werner made detailed inquiries with those present at the time. The dead man's family even provided a portrait. Despite all the realism in detail, the composition of the picture is artistically designed. The Crown Prince dominates the scene, the members of his staff keep a proper distance. As a knightly victor, he pays his last respects to the opposing dead. From Werner to the "halo" above the crown prince's head, he stylized the situation in terms of Prussian dynasty history.

Photos as sources of history

Photographs occupy a special place as image sources. They allow - at least in their external appearance - a closer approximation to past reality than other types of images. The technically generated image can only show what is actually in front of the lens; Unlike the painter, the photographer cannot add anything, but of course can prepare the object or scene.

In any case, photographs are the best sources for the history of events. Let's take the example of a demonstration: We can see that it actually took place, what goals it had (if posters or banners are recognizable), which (perhaps otherwise known) people were there, where they were, how numerous the crowd how her mood was. We must, of course, be careful if we want to make interpretations and generalizations. Because a single picture only ever shows a single case. In order to be able to judge whether it is representative, we must either have several similar pictorial representations or additional information. If photos from 1914 show volunteers who were enthusiastic about the war, it does not necessarily follow that everyone was enthusiastic; research has recently made corresponding relativizations. Those who were not enthusiastic stayed at home - there are no pictures of them. In this case, image sources cannot convey a complete picture of the historical situation.