Prof’s new book re-examines the forces at play in interpreting photographs

A picture may tell a thousand words, but what if the image is distorted or the meaning misconstrued? The newly published Photographs, Histories, and Meanings, co-edited by York Professor Marlene Kadar, re-examines photographs and their social history, exploring the ideological, ethical, political and esthetic forces that influence their interpretation.

Photographs, Histories, and Meanings (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) looks at how photographs have shaped public perception and social meaning for the last century and a half. Its contributors trace shifting historical contexts, intentional or accidental interpretive distortions, and ambiguous and multiple meanings.

They search for the answers to how images can be believed given the public’s awareness of the uncertainty of meaning. In the end, the contributors believe the histories conveyed in these photographs tell the stories of our lives. To know the photographs is to know ourselves with all our ambiguities, distortions and complexities on display.

“Many photographs had a particular meaning at the time they were taken, but now something dramatic or traumatic has happened to change the way we’ve received these images,” says Kadar. She points to the practice of Nazi photographers taking photographs of concentration camps as they were constructed or altered so as to maintain a record of them. The photos were also used to demonstrate to organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross that nothing was amiss in the camps’ operations.

Photos taken of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp portray women working on camp grounds, appearing healthy, well-nourished and adequately dressed, says Kadar. But these photos were completely staged. Some contemporary scholars, however, refer to them in their research as if they were accurate depictions of daily life. She contends that people must be vigilant in their interpretation of archival and artifactual materials, considering them in the context of politics, culture and history.

Right: Marlene Kadar

The essays in Photographs, Histories, and Meanings, range from “Strange Birth: Reading Hands, Reflecting Race in Richard Wright’s Twelve Million Black Voices” by Petra Dreiser and “Ambivalent Image: Twisted Use” by Kadar to “Captured Childhoods: Photographs in Indian Residential School Memoir” by Linda Warley and “Documenting Disaster: Rothstein’s ‘Steer Skull’ and the Use of Photographic Evidence in Environmental and Political Narratives” by James Hewitson.

Kadar is a humanities and women’s studies professor in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and former director of the Graduate Program in Interdisciplinary Studies in the Faculty of Graduate Studies. She is the editor of the Life Writing Series at Wilfrid Laurier University Press, which to date has published 38 books, and is the literary editor of Canadian Woman Studies. Previous edited works include the reader Reading Life Writing (Oxford University Press, 1993) and Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice (University of Toronto Press, 1992), which won the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Criticism in 1993.

She also co-edited Tracing the Autobiographical with Jeanne Perreault, Linda Warley and Susanna Egan. Her current research focuses on the life and career of a former concentration camp guard, and on the memoir of a Hungarian-born survivor of the Holocaust who spent the most difficult years in the former Yugoslavia.

In 2008, Kadar was named one of Canada’s most powerful women in the category of Trailblazers & Trendsetters by the Women’s Executive Network (WXN), an advocacy organization for women in the workplace. She was one of 100 top female winners chosen in eight categories from across Canada. Her inclusion in Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 by WXN recognizes her work in forging a new path for autobiography.

Photographs, Histories, and Meanings was co-edited with Warley, an English professor at the University of Waterloo, and Perreault, an English professor at the University of Calgary.