Visual History: The Past in Pictures

Images make history. They document events, preserve memories, allow us to witness at a distance, and move us to act. Images can serve as both records and sources for the writing of history. With funding from the Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar program, this seminar investigates the history of “writing” history in images (what Hayden White termed “historiophoty”) from the rise of print culture circa 1450 to the global spread of digital media in the present, with an emphasis on the Western tradition and experience, including its imperial contexts. By investigating the many ways in which histories have been told with and in images, we aim to contextualize the current ubiquity of visually mediated evidence, documentation, and narrative.

In the age of digital media, the power of images to transmit information in the present and craft accounts about the past appears obvious. That power, however, rests on a series of widely held and sometimes contradictory assumptions, among them: that images can be trusted as evidence if their provenance and accuracy are judged adequate; that images have greater emotional impact than words, but are on their own insufficient to write history and thus serve as illustrations to textual narratives; and that images are more universal and more capable of traversing geographic distances and cultural differences than words, except when impeded by unbreachable culturally-specific interpretive walls. The epistemic work of images, their evidentiary status in relation to words and things, and their perceived value as both historical sources and historical accounts have shifted again and again in the period our seminar examines, as have notions of what “history” itself means.

This Mellon Sawyer Seminar, hosted by the USC Visual Studies Research Institute and directed by Professors Daniela Bleichmar and Vanessa Schwartz, includes the following programs:

  • Six workshops involving twenty invited speakers
  • A two-day symposium with five invited speakers and presentations by graduate students
  • A group of core participants who will participate in all meetings, consisting of faculty from the University of Southern California and other institutions in the area, a Mellon Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellow, and two Mellon Sawyer Graduate Fellows
  • A graduate seminar, connected to the Visual Studies Graduate Certificate
  • Three public events on “Filmmaker Historians,” sponsored by Visions and Voices, the USC Arts and Humanities Initiative


Daniela Bleichmar
USC, Departments of Art History and History
Co-Director, Mellon Sawyer Seminar

Vanessa Schwartz
USC, Departments of Art History and History
Co-Director, Mellon Sawyer Seminar
Director, VSRI


Allan Doyle
Mellon Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellow

Randall Meissen
Ph.D Candidate, USC Department of History
Mellon Sawyer Graduate Fellow

Aaron Rich
Ph.D Student, USC Department of Cinema and Media Studies
Mellon Sawyer Graduate Fellow


Jennifer Greenhill
USC, Department of Art History

Suzanne Hudson
USC, Department of Art History

Lynn Hunt
UCLA, Department of History, Emerita

Megan Luke
USC, Department of Art History

Nancy Lutkehaus
USC, Department of Anthropology

Peter Mancall
USC, Departments of History and Anthropology
Director, USC-Huntington Early
Modern Studies Institute

Amy Ogata
USC, Department of Art History

Alka Patel
UC-Irvine, Departments of Art History and History

Edgardo Perez Morales
USC, Department of History

Laura Isabel Serna
USC, Department of Cinema and Media Studies and American Studies & Ethnicity

Debora Silverman
UCLA, Departments of Art History and History