In the first of three new posts in our ongoing series ‘New Directions in French History’, Ben Partridge (Newcastle) reflects on the use of photographs by historians.
In my PhD studying the photography of French strike movements, I often question how to use photographs as a historical source. The photograph offers us a rich source of material, and one that can be approached historically.
But while the iconic photography of events such as the Popular Front and May ’68 is exciting, dynamic and visually stimulating, the very qualities which can bring the events of the past to life can often lead to a relatively unquestioned status. I think it is important, as historians, to examine these images more closely as sources, and ask how they have contributed to the discourses about the past, and the framing of events. Re-situating these images within a historical moment by asking who took them, when, where and why is a start, but we also can go further and ask how they have shaped the presentation of history itself.
I’m often struck by how photographic forms of one period are replicated in another. Some point to the longevity of conventions: the formal posing of strikers at factory gates can be seen right up to the 1960s. Others tap into deep iconographic traditions, such as the Popular Front’s embrace of national and revolutionary imagery to serve its vision of ‘the people’, which drew on a photographic repertoire of Marianne, tricolours and Phrygian caps. A generation later, Jean-Pierre Rey’s La Marianne de Mai 68 shows how photographers continued to use these references to the past in very different circumstances.
Images transmitted across time retain their power to make the past present. But they have also done this in other pasts, and we need an awareness of why certain images are reproduced and what influences they might have had on the way. This attention to transmission and comparing contexts points to one way in which other approaches to history can provide a new perspective.
With the growing prominence of the transnational as an explicit theme in historical research, approaches to studying comparative forms of history have been a rich source of methodological innovations. While there may be subtle differences in the terms of Histoire Croisée, ‘Entangled History’ or their German equivalents, they share common concerns of challenging the assumptions of straightforward comparison. Histoire Croisée, as defined by Michael Werner and Bénédicte Zimmermann, is an approach which emphasises, through a the use of spatial metaphors, the constructed nature of objects of comparison, the need for reflexivity in analysis and the generation, rather than uncovering, of meaning through ‘crossings’. This focus on entanglement provides a novel way of conceptualising both the links, transfers and parallels in historical fields, but also the process of comparison itself.
Similar themes of reflexivity and relationality form a core part of theories of photography. Those following in the tradition of Walter Benjamin have emphasised the reproducible, socially constructed nature of the image, where meaning is largely determined by context. However others, such as Bazin and Barthes, privilege the photograph as a link back to the past and the domain of memory. Though photography only provides a one-way link, tracing the changing presentations of this depiction of the past through different contexts can show how its subject is constructed and conceptualised over time.
In another example of how Histoire Croisée has been adapted to new conceptual frameworks, developments in the burgeoning field of memory studies have themselves adopted an explicitly ‘entangled’ perspective. This takes the form of a concern with plurality and dynamism; acts of remembering can be interpreted within multiple frames, and analysed in terms of ‘multiple perspectives, asymmetries and cross-referential mnemonic practices’ explicitly derived from Werner and Zimmermann’s work.
The Popular Front and May ’68 have both been the focus of several waves of substantial memorialisation in which photography has played a part. Though in their photographic representation, they retain a vibrant sense of immediacy, the narratives surrounding them have shaped the images conveyed. These sometimes contradictory qualities of linkage and contextual construction are what make photography a natural subject for the approaches suggested by Histoire Croisée.
 Jessica Wardhaugh, In Pursuit of the People: Political Culture in France, 1934-39, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
 Jürgen Kocka, ‘Comparison and beyond’, History and theory, 42, 1 (2003), 42
 Michael Werner and Bénédicte Zimmermann, ‘Beyond Comparison: Histoire Croisée and the Challenge of Reflexivity’, History and theory, 45, 1, (2006), 30-50.
 Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, Thomas Y. Levin (eds.), translated by Edmund Jephcott, (Cambridge, Massachusetts :Harvard University Press, 2008)
 André Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, trans. Hugh Gray, Film Quarterly, 13, 4, (1960), 4-9; Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, (London: Vintage, 2000, first printed Editions du Seuil, 1980)
 Gregor Feindt, Félix Krawatzek, Daniela Mehler, Friedemann Pestel, and Rieke Trimçev, ‘Entangled Memory: toward a third wave in memory studies’, History and Theory, 53, 1 (2014), 24-44