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Amodern 3: Sport and Visual Culture
October 2014


An Interview with Ludmilla Jordanova

Jonathan Finn, Ludmilla Jordanova

Ludmilla Jordanova is a scholar whose work crosses the disciplines of history, science and technology studies, art history, and visual culture studies. She is the author of numerous books including Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1989), History in Practice (2nd ed. 2006), and The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice (2012). While very diverse in subject matter, her works are united in their rigorous treatment and examination of the visual. Throughout her work, Jordanova provides a rich “life history” of the varied roles, influences and impacts of the image in practices from Renaissance sculpture and eighteenth-century medicine to documentary photography and modernist painting. Importantly, she leads by example: the careful attention to and use of visual material in her scholarship should serve as a model to those that study and work with visual materials.

–Jonathan Finn


By way of introduction, I wonder if you could tell us a little about your latest book, The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice. Your book History in Practice, now in its second edition, takes up the field of history more broadly. Why write a book dedicated to the study and use of visual material in historical practice?

I thought of doing this book when I was working in Cambridge between 2003 and 2005. I had had jobs in both art history and history departments and it occurred to me that people who don’t have any visual training tend to drop into using visual evidence in one way or another without being particularly systematic about it or without thinking through their own practices. Having written a book about the nature of historical practice it seemed that this was a logical sequel. I was running an interdisciplinary research centre in Cambridge and someone from Cambridge University Press was very supportive and so I came up with the idea for the book and the Press agreed to publish it. Incidentally, there were four referee reports – two glowing and two skeptical – the two that were skeptical were from two people who I inferred were already in visual culture studies and they didn’t understand why I wasn’t writing a book about visual culture studies. They didn’t realize how little people know of the field outside of visual culture studies.

Then it took quite a long time to complete the book – much longer than anticipated. It has a feature where it switches between big conceptual chapters and shorter essays and I thought it was important in the essays and in how the captions were written to suggest what best practices could be. The reaction I have had suggests that this is not common knowledge to historians. For example, the notion of scale is one that historians haven’t thought about much and this suggests to me that they were not aware of some of these issues, so the book was really to address that. A main motive for writing the book was to see if I could do it and I did find it difficult because I wanted to be absolutely precise not just about theoretical issues but about the steps that people need to take when they are thinking as rigorously as possible in this area. So in a sense I wrote the book for myself because I wanted to see if could write this material down.

I was struck by the way it brings a rigorous visual methodology into a humanities-based text on the visual because what exists in humanities work such as the introductory texts of Mirzoeff and Sturken and Cartwright is an introduction to theoretical concepts. By contrast, in more social-scientific work, such as Gillian Rose’s Visual Methodologies, the emphasis is on a more applied-type of approach. Your book – exemplified in your first chapter – bridges the two and brings rigorous visual analysis into the humanities.

Thank you. More than that there is a patter that we find now, which says that our students are so visual and that the world is so visual, that they already know how to do this kind of work, yet I find a lot of people don’t know how to think about it critically and analytically.

I would like to say a number of other things in response to the question. My training in History and Philosophy of Science is crucial here. I wouldn’t have written this book had I not had training in the History and Philosophy of Science. Historians of science have been so important in showing us how we come to know and think.

With Rose’s text there is an underlying presumption that there are a limited number of ways to approach an object/image for analysis and she works through these different ways. I assume, perhaps wrongly according to some people, that you start with a deep engagement with the materials; that you start by respecting and becoming close to the things you want to use, and I learned this through studying art history with Thomas Puttfarken and in coming into contact with Michael Baxandall and I think there is something quite specific about the ways he thought, which I take to be very historical. So it’s not that I’m not in favour of some of the methods addressed by Rose, but I wouldn’t pull them out as separate because that gives priority to certain theoretical concerns over the complexities of the material that we are trying to get to grips with. In historical work you try to give these equal weight.

In the preface of your text you note that the ease with which we can now “steal, change, distort, chop up and trivialize images” has made it all the more important to study how we work with visual material in academic practice. Could you expand on what you mean by this? I find in my own teaching that I spend a great deal of time trying to convince students to look and keep looking. Do you see this in your own work?

One way I would come at this is by thinking about context. It seems to me that for historical practice context is everything and if you experience the world largely through digital media, your experience is likely to be quite decontextualized. If your experience with things is through downloading images, you lose a sense of the historical origins of those things and the contexts in which they are used. My favourite way of talking to people about this is about picture frames. Most websites with conventional art in them typically don’t have a picture of the frame. In my work on portraits I have found that frames were often custom made for the portrait, so not to show the frame constantly lessens one’s ability to understand how the immediate context might work. One thing I say in Look of the Past is that there are layers and layers of context – captions and the like – so the picture frame can be seen as a metaphor for the way things are framed.

If something is easy to acquire, it’s also easy to trivialize it. If you can go to a website and download masses of images, there is no incentive to engage with the scale of the image or with their coming into being, or their uses. The technological ease of access to images has many good features, but it poses problems in terms of our daily habits of using images. As a result, we have to teach our students to look and look and look some more and I would view it as an iterative process between our ideas and what we see, so that we’re constantly oscillating between the two, using one to shape the other and vice versa.

Your book is primarily aimed at historians. A claim similar to yours by Mike Huggins and Mike O’Mahony has been made to historians of sport, arguing that greater attention should be paid to writing sport history through the use of extant sporting images and archives. Is there a unique need within history to take the visual more seriously or do you feel that this need extends to other fields as well?

No, I don’t think it’s unique. I chose to address historians because that’s where I’ve done most of my work. I thought the book would work better if I had a clear sense of audience. But I think these issues come up all the time, for example in literary studies where you have large numbers of people using images – it’s much more established than it is in history – I think historians are a little bit afraid actually – they don’t quite know what to do with them. Critical theory gave literary people a kind of confidence, whereas historians have been much more resistant to “theory” and so there are some specific formations in the discipline that make this work [The Look of the Past] necessary. But I don’t think the book’s arguments apply only to historians. I think they apply to any field.

One thing I am interested in – but that is not in the book – is the question of heroes and heroization. And this is an area that is completely necessary in understanding the history of sport and sport in societies and it would be utterly perverse not to use visual and material evidence. I like to say this with a faux empiricism, because I think that’s quite a persuasive argument – why aren’t we using all this material? In my work on portraiture I quite often come across images of sportsmen. But to my knowledge there has been no systematic analysis of something like the National Portrait Gallery in London – this would be a fantastic project and would not have to be primarily historical, but could come from visual communication or other areas. So even though I try to communicate to a specific audience, the form of the argument can be applied to numerous fields.

I want to return to the ease with which we can access and use images, and how that impacts our practices of teaching. Compared to older art history classes with twin slide projectors and images keyed to an introductory text, it is now simple to build lectures and arguments and use Google Image to find visual material to support these. One possible result of this is a loss of recognition or understanding of the objects you are representing. I see this in students who use images in their seminar presentations but have no real sense of the image they are using (its creator, origin, location, scale, etc.).

I couldn’t agree more. What we do about this is another matter. When I was working in London I would always say to the students “just go to the gallery, go to the V&A and just look.” In Durham we have some amazing collections and I teach a stone’s throw from the Cathedral, so I can get students to go there to look. But I do realize that I’ve been able to teach in very privileged environments. Even in the NE of England – which is still quite privileged – it’s less so than London. So I think this raises important questions about the distribution of cultural artifacts or cultural goods – it is all very well for me to say walk over the road – but I imagine you’re not in the same situation that I am.

Agreed, but at the same time, there are so many on-line collections it would seem that you can have those same discussions there. I always come back in my classes as to whether or not students are even concerned with notions of authenticity or originality any more. Or whether this is a lost concept – maybe it’s that lack of tactile experience and the ability to stand in front of an actual object rather than continually look at it on screens that dissolves the sense of interest?

What I argue in the book is that it dissolves things like scale and texture above all else. I would encourage students to use resources like the V&A website and the British Museum website, which have heavy research support for any given object – the V&A particularly, because they have everyday and unusual objects – if you taught more through websites like that it is possible to give them a sense of original. Or if it was compulsory that they have to research and provide that information (such as scale) whenever they reference a visual object, it would keep reminding them about the kinds of contexts in which things are made and used.

We are approaching the 20th anniversary of the often-cited Visual Culture Questionnaire and visual culture studies has proliferated tremendously since that time. Yet I sense a concern in your book about the ways in which the visual is being treated. Secondly, despite this proliferation and despite the insistence of visual culture scholars that visual culture is concerned with far more than artistic practice, the vast majority of work in the discipline still seems primarily concerned with art. So there is a bit of a paradox where visual culture studies has proliferated but never really pushed beyond the boundaries of fine art.

My most immediate response to that is that you cannot think of visual culture studies in isolation from other disciplines. There is a whole landscape – an academic landscape – and in some sense disciplines fill niches and attract a certain type of person, who then reinforces the discipline, so I think the only way to answer your questions properly is to think also about the role of material culture studies and the relationship between the two. This is a facet of the issue I alluded to before – to the forms of theory and the kinds of status that forms of theory have. In material culture studies, for example, you find quite a reaction against a highly theorized approach to visual culture – because people want to reinstate, or even instate, the importance of looking at objects in everyday life. So you get a kind of division of labour, with “we use these kinds of ideas” and “they use those kinds of ideas.” And disciplines are very powerful, especially in North America where you have such ferocious tenure processes and competition for jobs. I think the climate in which people work in the UK is very different. North America is much more intensely professionalized – so it’s very important for graduate students to say “I work this way” – whereas I’ve always worked much more eclectically.

My very first post was at the University of Essex, which is an elite institution for social sciences but not for other fields – and the sociologists there used to say that eclecticism was not okay, which I never understood. You can’t just have a rag-bag, but you can take ideas and perspectives from different fields – so I’ve personally not worried about this, but I think a lot of people do worry about it. There are some mundane reasons why disciplines go on the way they do. Having said that, I think there are some “good” reasons why people might use art historical material and one is the kind of documentation you find. I work a lot with museums and if you go into their files you can find all sorts of information and insights about something that has been valued through a market transaction that you can’t find about other things. I do think we’re also still very sensitive to cultural hierarchy, so that people want to work on objects that other people will recognize and will value scholarship on because they value the object that the scholarship is about. So, and I allude to this in the book, it’s a very complex landscape.

I don’t particularly identify myself with visual culture studies because I find some of the writing really more or less impenetrable – honestly – I think there is a kind of conspiracy in saying “this is incredibly helpful and useful” when a lot of it is not helpful or useful at all. So it is important for me, politically, to be able to talk in plain English and I think in some quarters that is an unfashionable position. But frankly I’d rather be read – and I want to be read by people that don’t necessary know a lot at the moment as well as by people who do – but the idea of a type of writing that is accessible is for me quite important.

I was trained initially in a very traditional art history program but, as a child of the time, quickly moved into more and more theoretical terrain until we reached a point where we stopped talking about objects all together. So I was pleased to see that The Look of the Past is focused on the object and brings a rigorous approach to the study of visual material but does so in an accessible way.

That is exactly what I intended to do – but the concepts are all there – I don’t like there to be an easy distinction between what you’ve described and a more theoretical discourse. And I’m sure you know that in history there has been a relatively small subset of historians that have set themselves up as theorists and they tend to talk to each other and not to the rest of us. So what happens is that other people can dismiss theory – which I feel they should not – so it has an opposite effect to what was intended. A traditional history journal in the UK – the English Historical Review – asked me if I would write an essay about this, which I did and that was a very interesting experience, trying to show that theory is important, but must not be separated off from other practices.

You mentioned the differences between the UK and US market. I wanted to ask about the cultural climate in Post-Secondary Education now. In an environment of decreased government funding and an emphasis on skills-development in education, there has been a move to emphasize more applied-based programs and this puts humanities programs at a distinct disadvantage. I wonder if you have experienced that in your own work as an historian?

The short answer is no, because in the UK there is an enormous interest in leisure industries, museums and heritage and a lot of students want to go into that sector. So courses that can introduce students to the field and introduce them to some of the people involved are highly valued. Historians have quite a good track record in terms of employment – because it’s thought the kind of generic intellectual training that history provides is suitable for doing many other things. So I would say that that has not been my immediate experience.

Having said that, the university I am in now does not have an art history department and I am against it getting one because there are a lot of very good art history departments already, so I don’t see the need for another one. We have some excellent art historians, but they work in the Education Department. We’ve been setting up a Centre for Visual Arts and Cultures and we will run an MA program that will be interdisciplinary and the people from education, modern language, history, librarians and so on will participate. I work a lot with the people at the Oriental Museum – we have curators in the University to work with, they can speak most effectively to our students. I would actually see this as a real growth area.

I don’t feel that we’re at all marginal – but I think this does relate to a much broader trend, which is about the growth of museums and the growth of visiting – in the UK – country houses and so on – which is an incredibly important part of the economy. However, the government department that runs that side of the economy is apparently considered one of the lower status government departments. Hence that department is not given priority in terms of funding. The politics of this is incredibly complicated. I’m a Trustee of the Science Museum Group (5 museums), and we negotiate our funding with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Accordingly the Group keeps its finger on the pulse of what the government in particular and people in general think about museums. On one hand they recognize that they are an incredibly important part of public life, but on the other politicians want to do it on the cheap, which means the development departments of museums have to raise ever more money. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

One of the things you have in North America is a real tradition of philanthropy. The US has fantastic tax breaks that don’t exist in the UK. I think there is something quite radical in saying that people who are very rich ought to be giving and they ought to be giving to things that are for the public good – and museums and galleries are for the public good. We know that people want access to those cultural goods. To do so, you have to have highly-trained staff who know how to display, tell historical stories and so forth. I feel quite bullish about all of this – we’re doing something important, even if the government feels ambivalent, a lot of the population really value this.

For example, Durham was allegedly founded by and is linked to a particular Saint – Saint Cuthbert – he had an edition of the gospels produced – the Lindisfarne Gospels – and these are now held in the British Museum. They were brought up to Durham in the summer of 2013 and towards the end it was impossible to get tickets because so many people wanted to come and see the exhibition. I think there is a real sense of people wanting to see these things – they didn’t want to see the Lindisfarne gospels digitally, they wanted to come and see the real thing. All the evidence we have about museum visiting is that people do prize being able to see the real thing. But we know that those same people are doing a lot of other things digitally. So my take on this is that we want to feel a connection to the artisanal capacity to make things, which can be associated with “genius” artists (which I’m not very keen on), but it can also be associated with the craftsmanship of monks. And I don’t think you have to be a Christian to be caught up by that particular pleasure.

And I think we need one more loop – we might see business partnerships as offering very positive possibilities. There are universities in the UK ( for example, some of the newer ones) trying to develop business links and I think one of the things this gives people doing business degrees is an understanding of their own history. The University of Hertfordshire, for example, encourages businesses to know their own history – to write their own history as part of appreciating their larger historical context. I don’t think we have to be cynical about this and I don’t think the idea that we raise money from very rich people is problematic at all.

There is clearly a book-length project there on people returning to museums to gain contact with artisanal traditions.

I am currently working on the 3rd edition of History in Practice, which is quite a big re-write. After that I am going to write up a project funded by the Wellcome Trust, which is about portraits that seem to speak about suffering and well being – and I think people have a very strong desire to see works of art that speak to issues like this. It’s sounds very liberal-humanist, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There is a lot of empirical evidence that people want to try and understand things like the experience of being terribly ill. We know this from blogs. If they want to do this through blogs, it seems likely they will want to do it in other forms too (film, portraits, and so on.).

You mentioned at the beginning of the interview that this [The Look of the Past]was a very difficult book to write – can you expand on this – why was it difficult to write?

First off, it covers an enormous range of material. To write a short essay on something like the Bernini sculpture, basically takes weeks and weeks and you get maybe 10 or 11 pages of text. And I remember days when I would go to the library all day and maybe get one sentence or one footnote or two sentences out of the work I had done. So it’s partly because of the range. But I also tried to come up with some examples that had never appeared in print before. Cambridge University Library has a large collection of ephemera and I asked if I could see it – they took me through the collection and so I was able to choose material and present it in, I hope, quite a fresh way. I don’t think you can do that kind of research on the Internet.

And I also thought I should try and read or at least skim quite a range of literature. But actually condensing it into an accessible argument is quite hard. It’s the craft of writing that I would say is hard. And that was true in History in Practice as well. I had set out to write a text that aimed to be completely clear, but in being completely clear maybe people who are more experienced can find something of interest. In both the Bernini and Renoir essays in The Look of the Past, there is material that is not addressed in the secondary literature. For example, in the secondary literature on the Bernini, there is a great deal of emphasis on her face. However, if you go and stand in front of the statue and kneel down, you actually can’t see her face from that angle and what you see is something quite different. Art historians have gone on about this because they’ve done things like photographing the statue from an angle (on scaffolding) that you could never see in Bernini’s lifetime. Or with the Renoir, the pictures with which it is being compared in the secondary literature are actually misleading. One of the leading Renoir specialists, the late John House, said we can compare the Renoir with another picture (a Titian) and I take the reader through why that doesn’t work. So I hope that a Renoir specialist might take something from this. Getting all this in place and making it accessible is actually quite labour-intensive and involves a lot of work – and you have to find your voice. I find that some bits work much better than others. I most enjoyed writing the Renoir essay, which was surprising because I don’t particularly “like” Renoir as an artist. But I came to have a real absorption in what he was doing and his relationship with Vollard, which is an incredibly important aspect of understanding modernism, because Vollard had such complex relationships with “his” artists, such as Picasso.

I wanted to ask about something in line with the practice of working with visual material – but more to the pragmatics of accessing and getting images and the permissions and rights to use them. When I look at three of your texts – Sexual Visions, History in Practice, and The Look of the Past – in sequence they all have more images – so that The Look of the Past is quite richly illustrated. Could you speak to the challenges of this not only in relation to The Look of the Past but in working with images more generally?

I think that’s a fantastic question because we don’t talk about it enough. As a result of not talking about it, it perpetuates some of the difficulties. Publishers can hide behind “oh we normally wouldn’t do that” – so I feel really passionate about this. The first thing I would say is that you have to know your provider. Before I became the Trustee of this current Museum, I was a Trustee at the National Portrait Gallery. Prior to that I did an exhibition for them called “Defining Features”; the book that accompanied it is also heavily illustrated. In working with the National Portrait Gallery I learned a lot more about the issues of reproduction and so on. So one idea is to try and build relationships with providers of images. The second point with The Look of the Past is that in Cambridge there is an understanding that if you publish with the Press, parts of the University don’t charge you for rights, they just charge for producing the image. I used a lot of images from the University Library and they were fantastic – they were absolutely amazing. I think the staff on the ground got quite interested in what I was doing. There is a photograph album compiled by a 19th century undergraduate that I’m sure wasn’t published before. I met the woman who was cataloguing such items while I was working on the book and she would bring me examples of images to see if they would be of interest to me. I named her in the acknowledgements because she was so kind. Without that kind of interest I wouldn’t have been able to do it. So it cost me a modest amount to get a digital image from the Library, but no fees to reproduce it.

The Press also gave me a small budget for images so we looked around and – I don’t want to say negotiated, because people either had fees or not, and searched for “bargains.” It is incredibly time-consuming, there is no question about that. There are a wide variety of considerations: the key is building different kinds of relationships and understanding what you can ask for and who you can ask. For example, we discovered that it was cheaper to buy some images from companies [such as Getty and Corbis] than from the original museums. There are 90 images in the book – we expended a lot of time getting them – and sometimes we wanted images and they weren’t available, then you have to re-write or rethink a chapter. I think people who have never done it have no idea how complex it is.

It becomes more and more difficult as you come in to the present day – recent and current artists are much more gate-keeping. I just published a piece on the period after 1945 and one major artist just would not respond to my questions – and that I just cannot understand – you would think he would be keen to facilitate – by contrast, the Barbara Hepworth estate were extraordinarily generous – so it’s very interesting how these relationships work. The book about medical portraits will only start in 1850 and I want to have many contemporary images and I imagine the most difficult part of that will be negotiating the rights.

So there is a real problem there in the way that your ability to access and reproduce material actually changes the kinds of scholarship you can do.

Yes, and access to libraries – I don’t think I could have written a book like this without access to a library like Cambridge.

By way of concluding, what’s next for you?

I am redoing History in Practice with more illustrations, so that the project you see in The Look of the Past will be taken up in History in Practice. And the third edition has a chapter on practicing history in the digital world. I’ve also just written a piece in reply to a journal article about how historians use digital images. That will appear in 2014. Then I want to write up the research I have been doing on medical portraits – this doesn’t just mean practitioners but patients as well and in a range of media. Then I’m going to do something rather different and write a book about science and public history. I’m doing that with a curator and we’re hoping to do it in an untraditional format, which will include conversations between us and commentaries on each other’s work. After that I want to write a book on heroism, which will be built around William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of blood and tracking how he was created as a heroic figure from his own lifetime – he died in 1657 – right through to the present day. So something quite different, but the idea is to take a very controlled case-study and to think about all the things you have to do in order to understand heroism – the concept and the sources (medals, naming of places, stained glass windows, a very wide range of visual and material culture) – while trying to show through that how we can actually understand the creation and propagation of heroism. I reckon by that time I’ll be well into my 70s and I’ll see how many more books I can do after that.

Article: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Image: from Animal Locomotion
Eadweard Muybridge