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The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence

Eyewitnessing evaluates the place and potency of images among other kinds of historical evidence. By reviewing the many varieties of images across region, period, and medium, and by looking at the pragmatic uses of images (from the Bayeux Tapestry to an engraving of a printing press or a reconstruction of a building), Peter Burke illuminates the damaging consequences of our assumption that these practical uses are reflections of specific historical meanings and influences.

Traditionally art historians have depended on two types of analysis when dealing with visual imagery: iconography and iconology. Burke describes and evaluates these approaches, concluding that they are insufficient. Focusing instead on the medium as message and on the social contexts and uses of images, he discusses both religious images and political ones, images in advertising and as commodities. Ultimately, Burke shows how iconographic as well as post-iconographic methods—the latter including psychoanalysis, semiotics, viewer response, and deconstruction—are both useful and problematic to contemporary historians.

304 pages | 82 halftones | 5 x 7 3/4 | © 2019

History: General History

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Eyewitnessing is not about the value of images at all, but rather about the primacy of words. . . . The book becomes a sustained argument for the preservation of old-fashioned text-based history, through the constant citing of contexts in which images are nothing without textual support.”

Nicholas Hiley | Times Literary Supplement

“Burke . . . has produced a fine book resulting from his study of images as sources of historical evidence. . . . The author . . . is known for his interest in finding links between languages, cultures, and epochs as well as methodologies and disciplines. The present volume is an example of this sweeping intelligence at work and is a must for students of history, culture, fine arts, anthropology, and film.”


“Provides us with a compendium . . . [that] continues the long process of restoring the balance between written documentation and optical representation as carriers of historical information. . . . A thoroughly engrossing explication of how fine art, graphics, photographs, film, and other media can be used to make sense of lives lived out in other times.”

Tate Magazine

"Well-informed and fair-minded, and it prompts one to ponder."

Michael Baxandall | English Historical Review

“Burke . . . describes and evaluates the methods by which art historians have traditionally analyzed images, finding them insufficient to address the complexities of visual imagery.”

Book News

“This book is especially valuable for its many examples of images that could be used in historical research, and for its coherent summary of key concepts and theories. . . . Eyewitnessing is highly recommended for historians and art historians alike.”

Nina K. Stephenson, University of New Mexico | Art Documentation

“Any timid historian reading this book would run in terror from even thinking about using images as evidence. Burke details the pitfalls as he surveys types of images historians might use. . . . Overall, an encouraging, short introduction to a tricky subject.”

Virginia Quarterly Review

“As Burke illustrates in Eyewitnessing, images have a long tradition of distorting the facts. Of what use, then, are images to scholars of history? What types of historical evidence do images provide? Burke sets out to answer these questions. His book is intended to encourage and instruct readers in the historiographic use of images, and it succeeds splendidly on both counts. . . . Through an impressive array of case studies, Burke demonstrates the value of images to historians while providing instructive warnings about their use. . . . For those new to the study of images, Eyewitnessing provides an accessible and practical introduction to the historiographic use of visual culture. For art historians and scholars already committed to the study of visual phenomena, Burke’s book serves as a cogent reminder of the complex relations between images and history.”

Sharon Corwin, University of California, Berkeley | Technology and Culture

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