The Common People and the Artist in the 1930s

An Essay in the Cultural and Social Metahistory of China through Visual Sources
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Project history

The project was born from the long-time involvement of the participants in the use of visual materials and digital resources in the study of China. The Institute of Chinese Studies in Heidelberg Center runs the European Center for Digital Resources in Chinese Studies (under the direction of Rudolf Wagner) which has been developed with the support of German foundations and has a very large collection of (acquired) databases. The Institute has started developing its own bases of digital resources, especially in music and cinema. The Institut d’Asie Orientale has followed a different route based on a research-oriented approach combining the constitution of photographic and cartographic corpuses, especially on Shanghai, with the production of the "Virtual Shanghai" platform. The contacts and collaboration between the two centers are longstanding in joint meetings. The project entails the preparation of corpuses, the analysis and collation of sources and the preparation of texts. The Multimedia technological platform at the Institut des Sciences de l’Homme will provide the hardware and technical infrastructure for the implementation of the project.


The present project proposes a new form of “intellectual journey.” This would be a journey in which historical knowledge is produced and conveyed by visual materials integrated into an architecture of relational data.1 It will take up the challenge of elaborating a new form of historical writing. The objective is not simply to combine texts and documents but to make these different elements “speak” separately, in parallel and/or together.

Research statement

The organization of the project

In recent years, increasing numbers of researchers have focused attention on the use of visual materials such as lithographs, photographs, illustrations, illustrated periodicals and films in the study of modern and contemporary history.2 In Chinese studies, historians of literature and art have undertaken critical analysis on the use of historical photographs and textual sources such as novels and short stories in the construction of historical narrative. This approach is still in its pioneering stages.3 On the other hand, many authors have used photographs and pictures as illustrations. These developments have brought it home to historians that old photographs and films are sources in their own right in the reconstruction of the past.4 These historians thus emphasize the value of a more intensive exploration of the methodological and thematic possibilities opened up by the use of visual documents as historical sources.6 This new field of interest has led Thomas H. Hanh to create an online bibliography of resources on the history of photography in China.6 We propose to approach historical issues through the visual records and use a relational database to develop a new form of historical writing. The context of this project is entirely that of fundamental research. However, its applications will also be geared to the creation of pedagogical tools at the university and even the secondary school levels.

The goals and bases of the project

From the methodological viewpoint, we seek to raise questions on the ways in which the visual and the textual sources complement each other at two essential levels of historical research. The question is, firstly, how we can make it possible, through visual perception and visual reflection, to challenge, redefine and even support the conventional reading of textual materials so as to bring out new perspectives (new modes of questioning and new conceptions) and open up fresh possibilities of research and, secondly, how we can find new ways, through the use of new materials, to link images with words, compose a historical narrative and amplify and reconsider textual conventions. From a thematic viewpoint, we seek to raise questions on the way in which fresh perceptions and new ways of using the visual sources could influence our interpretation and our writing on issues of popular culture, understood in the broad sense of the term to cover material culture, the social and gender-related construction and configuration of the public space, practices related to religion and worship, work and leisure and so on. We seek to understand especially how these questions can be analyzed from both a spatial and a temporal perspective within a given historical context.

The use of visual sources in historical research often raises a series of epistemological questions.7 In its simplest function, photography has generally served to illustrate a text (for purposes of embellishment, give substance to a story or "display " an individual, a place and so on). However, we seek to make systematic use of the entire corpus of photographs and films in an attempt to make the past "real" or "visible" as it were. It is no longer a question of collecting individual or disparate images, but of bringing together sets of documents (visual, textual and acoustic documents) in relational databases. Scientific literature on the use of the Internet in historical studies has focused attention above all on the "orientation" and use of online data and not on the modalities by which knowledge is produced through these new tools, whereas it is at this level that the issue is actually played out.8 This approach takes us from a function where it illustrates and supplements the textual sources of the image to one where it is considered to be a source in its own right, capable of “saying” something else about the past, and of saying it in another way. The field of application of this approach may naturally vary from field to field of historical investigation. At the same time, it can be claimed that in areas such as the history of urban spaces9, cultural history10 and the history of material culture or military conflict, photography is a historical source in its own right. Besides, it is in the field of military conflict that photography has been most valued, probably because of its impact on the public.11

A photograph is always a shot taken at a very precise point in time. This means that a photograph records “events” just like a document. Our approach in this project – taking the visual sources as the starting point and basis of historical inquiry – is not intended to counter the approach based on the textual sources. The fact is that we would like to take this mode of thinking to its logical conclusion with the perhaps ambitious and illusory aim of laying the ground for a metahistory of the subject– popular classes and popular culture – that is at the center of the present project. We would like to test the idea according to which, in the understanding of historical processes, like that of other phenomena, hitherto bound to only one medium, namely real or virtual paper and bound to a unique mode of expression, that of one-dimensional linear text, the full use of the image combined with other elements offers an alternative to historical reasoning in both intellectual and cognitive terms.

Like any other source, still and moving pictures are a demanding medium where methodology is concerned. The option that was chosen for one of the main axes of the project, namely taking fictional films as a medium, is related to an approach similar to the one raised by the use of literary texts in which, at the very outset, the fictional nature of the work implies acceptance of work at the level of representations (without excluding the real character of the social impact of cinema in the construction of collective perceptions and, therefore, in social behavior). This dimension is fully taken into account in the work envisaged, in the same way as is the planned use of literary documents. Photography raises other problems, relating especially to its origins and function (by whom [e.g. amateurs vs. professionals, art photography vs. news photography]), when, where, why, for which public, etc.). The use and interpretation of photographs may be extremely varied and may therefore call for the preparation of “canons” for a “historical science of images”. The production of images is the result of circumstances. These circumstances must be grasped in the same way as the historian seeks to grasp the conditions in which a written source has been conceived.

The professional photographer does not just collect “scenes of reality”. He makes choices and takes decisions within reality. Within reality, he introduces a degree of subjectivity that is both the strength and the weakness of his creation. Before the photographer shoots a picture, he may take a thousand decisions, starting with the choice of his subject, his approach to the subject (from the « real » to the « poetic »).12 For example, in a photographic account of a military conflict, the practice of showing the most sensational or the most disturbing subjects is an obvious example of the way in which a professional can manipulate his material.13 The historian who looks at these materials again, at a remove of 50 or 100 years, cannot take it for granted that what he is seeing reflects the conflict in question. What he sees is necessarily a slice of reality that he then tries to insert into a system of analysis and interpretation comparable to the one that he conceives of in the use of textual sources. Nothing is ever spontaneous or neutral, not even the photographs taken by an amateur. What is it that leads an individual to take such and such a shot ? This depends on what he is led to “see” or “not see”.14

Photographs are produced in very varied circumstances. However, the very modalities by which they are distributed have extremely varied implications. Depending on the period in question, a photographic style may become a « genre” that is both popular and profitable.15 Why is a picture disseminated ? Is it in order to “show that we were there” or that the “photographer was there” ? Once it is made public, especially through the press, the photograph assumes a life of its own. It “gives a face” to history. It allows those who look at it to feel that they “are a part of history”; it helps create a vision of this history, sometimes in emblematic fashion.16 In other words, photography can foster the construction of a memory that is both visual and historical from which, through a rebound effect, people living in contemporary times examine their past from a predefined set.17 Naturally, there is no question here of arguing for an over-development of the photography function but of putting forward the epistemological problems and the unavoidable issues of method raised by the use of images.18 While the fictional film does not belong to the same register, it raises similar questions relating to the relationship between reality, fiction and memory. Furthermore, the extreme dispersion favored by the nature of the medium (unlike a photograph, a text taken as a unit always has internal consistency) results in a memory that is ever more fragmented and fleeting.

The use of photography thus shares a number of problems with oral history in that it reflects or records not only an event but also an interpretation of this event. For the period envisaged, namely the 1920s and the 1930s, it also raises the problem of quantity. As with textual materials, the spread of the camera after 1900 led to the production of pictures on a huge scale. It is difficult to apply external critical tools to these photographs with the same rigor that one would apply to the limited corpus of photographs from the 19th century.19 Nonetheless, quantity is not the most critical issue. What is important rather is the range of the corpus, which is more limited than might be imagined since it is naturally the same objects that were focused upon in both official and private photography. In other words, there is a considerable mass of photographs that is strictly of no interest to the historian who must trawl through a sea of images to fish out those photographs that might allow us to “see” the past. This said, our methodological preferences cannot be reduced to a random fishing trip but to a search based on specific collections of photographs and moving pictures. In the explanation of the three main programs or avenues of research in the project, it will be seen that the historical investigations envisaged are based on specific and very largely unexplored corpuses. This does not rule out the inclusion of other groups of photographs once their relevance is proven. However, the advantage of working with homogeneous corpuses whose nature, origin and purpose can be established with certitude is precisely the ability to test the assumptions and the questions of methodology and epistemology referred to here above.

Points of methodology

This project will take up the challenge of elaborating a new form of historical writing. The goal is not simply to combine texts and documents but to make these different elements “speak” separately, in parallel and/or together. The nature of the materials has been properly identified. However, they can be sub-divided into different categories: textual materials (writings as such and original documents), visual materials (photographs, drawings and films) and maps (originals, creations, GIS-processed originals, time maps), sound (films and other sources).

The relational database is therefore planned around a three-fold framework. This framework will serve as the basis for an independent journey using three major corpuses: texts, images and maps. Each corpus has different characteristics. The corpus constituted by text, namely “historical narrative” prepared by the authors, which crosses each program, provides for a linear journey linked, at the conceptual level, with key topics. At the formal level, it offers numerous possibilities of “freezing”, guided detours towards a thematic sub-set of texts, images and maps, specific leaps etc. In the exercise of composition, we are aware a priori of the imperatives of both historical writing and logic. This work of writing is comparable to the one in which the historian is trained, but exists in three dimensions. At the surface of the words (D1), we add documentary strata (D2) which are like all so many “geological” layers or subterranean currents capable of rising to the textual surface through the historian’s or his reader’s choice. The time dimension (D3) is the level at which both the duration and the logical organization of the journey can be managed in a preferred way.

The second corpus – photography and moving pictures – constitutes a starting point that is extremely dispersed by definition since it comprises individual items. What has to be done therefore, at a first level, is to associate a very detailed information sheet with each visual item. This sheet is not limited to the “object” photographed or filmed. In addition, these items must be assembled, using the “objects” themselves as well as associated texts/fields into sub-sets. These sub-sets may be mobilized by a system of “calls” within the text (“historical narrative”). At the same time, they must constitute autonomous units designed to offer a possible journey, distinct from the one built by the text. Even if we overlook the technical dimension, this is not the issue at stake nor is it the essential difficulty. The essential point lies in the conception of the visual journey which, in all likelihood, will not integrate the totality of the corpus within each line of research but will respond to choices made by the authors. These choices are inevitable and necessary to respond to the historian’s logic of “narrative” when he writes. Writing is always a matter of choice.

The third corpus presents fewer difficulties because while it is formed by individual items, their number is limited. The maps will be used both to place our subjects in space (a space whose perception is enriched by the visual and even acoustic materials) and also to show developments of this space by cartographic representation, especially the living maps constituted by the time maps. On the basis of a precise mapping system based on GIS techniques (i.e. a very precise geo-referencing system) it is possible to reconstitute spaces up to a very basic level (that of individual buildings and even shops in Shanghai). By cross-checking and collating sources (police records, directories etc.), it is possible, through the information-sheets, to approach a social group, district or street (cf. concentration of crafts per street in China). This approach by the spatial dimension is an additional input in the subject, helping towards the total “historical narrative”.

In the basic approach, we make no distinction between ourselves and the “historian’s craft”, whose methods apply to all the materials envisaged in this project. The preparation of the basic elements (drafting of documents, corpus of visual documents with information inputs, spatialization), although these will be used in new forms, raises no challenges other than those with which the historian is usually confronted. The difference and the issues at stake lie in the concomitant mobilization of these elements through a particular medium (a data base) enabling another form of reflection on the practice and writing of history – and hence necessarily a conceptual challenge.

The organization of the project

To achieve these goals, the participants in this project are planning to follow a parallel route on the basis of three distinct corpuses of still pictures (photographs) and moving pictures (films) centered on three groups of individuals in three different spaces at a same period (the 1920s and the 1930s). The final form of each research program cannot be determined beforehand, even if our approach will be underpinned and sustained by the fact of our working in common and having regular discussion sessions.

The project hinges on several modalities of work. We shall use the dual possibility of carrying out individual research in archives or libraries and working in common through electronic means since the input of textual, visual and other data can be delocalized. We envisage two levels of encounters during the project and one level of linkage with the main network of international research in the field considered (ECAI). The first level will comprise common work sessions in which it will be sought, as and when the project is being built, to define the tools, referents, concepts, methods and so on that must contribute to the constitution of the total corpus and its preparation in terms of historical narrative. It is planned that these meetings will take place every six months. The second level will consist of a seminar limited to project members but with people from outside participating. The seminar will focus on the theme of the project, namely the use of visual documents, writing in history or other disciplines and NTICs. The seminar will be aimed solely at discussing issues in epistemology and methodology.

The project is situated in an international context. It will form part of the ECAI (Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative), a consortium of teams involved in all the forms of application of NITC to the human and social sciences. The annual conferences of the ECAI are the main place in which ideas, techniques, concepts and results of research in the field are confronted with each other. The expected results of the project will take the form of several objects. The main object will probably be the relational database entitled "The Common People and the Artist in the 1930s", which is intended to be the core of the work. The other output will take the form of contributions in specialized historical journals (Chinese history, history and data processing, history journals).

1 Gibson, Alex, “WWW and the Internet: New Opportunities for Historical Discourse?,” History and Computing, 1995, 7(2): 81-89

2 On the history of photography, see Marien, Mary Warner, Photography and its Critics: A Cultural History, 1839-1900, New York: Cambridge U. Pr., 1997.

3 The historians of Africa were among the first to note the importance of photography as a historical source, but they were hardly heard . Forlacroix, Christian, “La photographie au service de l'histoire d'Afrique”, Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines, 1970 10(37): 125-143.

4 Flowerday, Julie Mae, “A Construction of Cultural History from Visual Records for the Burusho of Hunza, Pakistan”, doctoral dissertation, U. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1998; Roskill, Mark, “History and the Uses of Photography”, Victorian Studies, 1979, 22(3): 335-344.

5 Dewitz, Bobo von and Lebeck, Robert, ed., Kiosk: A History of Photojournalism 1839-1973, Boston: DAP, 2002; Ganeva, Mila M., "A Forgotten History of Modernity: Fashion in German Literature, the Illustrated Press, and Photography in the Weimar Republic”, doctoral dissertation, U. of Chicago, 2000.

6 The web site is:

7 There are still very few works that reflect upon the use of visual documents as a historical source: Bann, Stephen, “The Odd Man Out: Historical Narrative and the Cinematic Image”, History and Theory, 1987, 26(4): 47-67; Giordano, Michele, “Fotografia e storia”, Studi Storici, 1981, 22(4): 815-832; McCord, Norman, “Photographs as Historical Evidence”, Local Historian,1978, 13(1): 23-35; Buch, Pierre, “Auschwitz et la photographie”, Cahiers d'Histoire du Temps Présent, 1997, (2): 227-242; Korsten, Margreet C. M., “Fotografie als historische bron” [Photography as a historical source], Theoretische Geschiedenis [Pays-Bas] 1997, 24(1): 52-61; Milton, Sybil, “Die Bedeutung von Photodokumenten als Quelle zur Erforschung der NS-Konzentrationslager”, Revue d'Allemagne, 1995, 27(2): 175-187.

8 See for example, Conner, Susan P., “The Web We Weave: Search Engines, Databases and Other Internet Resources for Historians of France”, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History, 1999, 26: 63-75; Welsch, Erwin K., “The Wired Historian: Internet Prospects and Problems”, Centennial Review, 1994, 38(3): 479-502; Sproat, Peter A., “Researching, Writing And Teaching Genocide: Sources On The Internet”, Journal of Genocide Research, 2001, 3(3): 451-461.

9 Thiriez, Regine, Barbarian Lens: Western Photographers of the Qianlong Emperor's European Palaces, Newark, N.J.: Gordon & Breach, 1998. Pour l’Italie, voir Werner, Francoise, “Photographie et histoire: les Alinari”, Histoire, 1979, (9): 94-97.

10 Burns, E. Bradford, “Photography as the recorder of Latin American social customs”, Americas, 1974, 26(8): 5-12

11 Lewinski, Jorge, The Camera at War: A History of War Photography from 1848 to the Present Day, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980; Brothers, Caroline, War and Photography: A Cultural History, New York: Routledge, 1997; Huppauf, Bernd, “The Emergence of Modern War Imagery in Early Photography”, History & Memory, 1993, 5(1): 130-151; Blondet-Bisch, Therese, “Aperçu historique de la pratique photographique durant la Grande guerre”, Historiens et Geographes, 1998, 89(364): 249-251; Veray, Laurent, “Montrer la guerre: la photographie et le cinématographe”, Guerres Mondiales et Conflits Contemporains, 1993, 43(171): 111-121.

12 Heydecker, Joe J., “Photographing Behind the Warsaw Ghetto Wall, 1941”, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 1986, 1(1): 63-77

13 Zapata V., Maria Isabel, “El fotoperiodismo y los hechos del 9 de abril de 1948 en Bogota”, Memoria y Sociedad [Colombia] 2001, 5(10): 103-113; Ranger, Terence. “Colonialism, Consciousness and the Camera”, Past & Present, 2001, (171): 203-215; Terraine, John, “The Camera at War”, Journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, 1980, 125(4):74-77.

14 The same mechanism is at work in texts and narratives. For instance, in many memoirs by former Western residents of Shanghai, the Chinese population hardly appears or in a biased or reduced form like servants, coolies, etc.

16 Marwil, Jonathan, “Photography at War”, History Today, 2000, 50(6): 30-37

16 Caven, Hannah, “Horror in our Time: Images of the Concentration Camps in the British Media, 1945”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 2001, 21(3): 205-253; Zeliger, Barbie, “La photo de presse et la libération des camps en 1945: images et formes de la mémoire, Vingtième Siècle, 1997, (54): 61-78.

17 Thomas, Julia A., “Photography, National Identity, and the "Cataract Of Times": Wartime Images and the Case of Japan”, American Historical Review, 1998, 103(5): 1475-1501; Hartmann, Wolfram; Silvester, Jeremy; and Hayes, Patricia, ed., The Colonising Camera: Photographs in the Making of Namibian History, Athens: Ohio U. Press; Cape Town: U. of Cape Town Press; Kansas City, Mo., Out of Africa, 1999.

18 The use of historical photographs in present time is subject to debate and controversies, especially when it deals with sensitive issues such as war. Majerus, Benoît, “L'utilisation de la photographie dans la Wehrmachtsausstellung: rendez-vous manqué entre l'histoire et la photographie”, Cahiers d'Histoire du Temps Présent, 2001, (8): 367-384.

19 Thiriez, Régine, “Photography and Portraiture in Nineteenth-Century China”, East Asian History, 1999 (17-18): 77-102.

Page modified on 26 November 2008