Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 November 2002
Photographs show what performers actually look like. They show details of costume. They apparently show gesture, posture, stance, and expression, which sometimes can be linked with specific moments in a drama. The idea of photographs as pictorial evidence of actors' work appeals because photos seem, paradoxically, both to describe and to resolve the disturbing contradiction which lies close to the heart of the historian's work: the transient intimate moment (the inherently unstable and ephemeral) arrested, caught forever. This is an idea (or an ideal) that makes the use of photos so appealing. Photographs seem to tell us that we have passed from the realm of the subjective artist, who aspired to reproduce a likeness of an event that lay beyond his or her capacity to realize fully, into the domain of the scientific observer. The camera, we are led to understand, is merely a scientific recording instrument, an objective machine that simply transcribes onto a sensitized plate anything which is placed before it. A baby, an actor, a steam engine, or a cow is recorded with equal impartiality. We are so grateful for any image of these elusive and fugitive moments of distant performance that we hesitate to query the source.