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Pictures Make History: West German Environmentalism from 1950 to 1990

Walter Benjamin changed the way I think about being a historian. He honors every source (even the small and seemingly random) as a messenger from the past and is fascinated by mass media. In Benjamin, I have found somebody who thinks in a similar way as I do (or at least this is my interpretation of his work); sometimes my thoughts are more 3D-like mind maps made of images and words or flashing images that are hard to describe only in a textual form.

For Benjamin, mental images are more than images that stay in your mind: they can materialize, too. They also imply a specific way of analyzing topics—not necessarily chronologically, but rather zooming into sources to get a feeling about a previous era and a vision about your own future. For me, this means gaining an understanding of social and political environmental practices by analyzing the materiality and motifs of different media and seeing them as part of a bigger picture.

As environmental historians like Anna-Katharina Wöbse, Gregg Mitman, and Finis Dunaway have pointed out, since the beginning of nature protection in the 19th century, images have played a crucial persuasive role. My dissertation uses Visual Communication Research to ask when and why German environmental images were produced, what is depicted and how, and who affects an image and how. It demonstrates how, despite significant shifts in ideology, iconography remains consistent in post-WWII West German environmental thought. Examples of this similar “motif” used by different German groups through 40 years include postage stamps, magazine covers, posters, comics, and buttons from the government, media, and environmental groups. I ask if these motifs can be interpreted as nodes connecting different interpretations of the environment that co-establish social and political structures.

Trying to visualize parts of my results by infographics (instead of just through written description and analysis) was a logical step. Producing infographics for the public means visual storytelling. Infographics challenge the normal way of reading (or seeing); they are not only illustrations or analytical objects but also producers of historical knowledge. Additionally, they combine temporal and spatial experiences at the same time. Text, in other words, is temporal because it focuses on a chronicle-style reading, word by word, while images are instead perceived simultaneously.

I believe that using infographics as a scientific tool fulfills Benjamin’s intention of merging text and image for the sake of historical understanding. As the German scholar Nikolai Jan Preuschoff argues, mental images function in a visual as well as in a spatial way. They are in-between text and image, word and thing. This specific connection of spaces of thinking and visualization helps to enlighten even a small piece from the past to broaden the view of this era—in my case the visual culture of West German environmentalism between 1950 and 1990.

Building from the ideas of recent talks by human geographer Anne Kelly Knowles on geographic visualization in the humanities, an informal conversation among graduate students about drawing for clarity in research, and the graphic novel Syllabus by Lynda Barry encouraging readers to “write the unthinkable,” I restarted my dream about historical visualizations and intensified working with (info)graphics. At first I used my office wall to generate a mind map. While drawing and arranging by myself, I rethought my PhD. My mind map—and with this also my topic—is still in sketchbook phase.

This gallery represents my first attempts to create infographics of my research for the public, and to narrate West German environmental imagery by designing visuals. The first one gives an overview of my general topic followed by four more visualizing my chapter about postal stamps.

What do these drawings add to my text? Right now my infographics are more graphs which show relations rather than real infographics. Nevertheless, making them has helped me (and hopefully in their final form will help the public, too) to combine images with text to understand the gap between how the post ministry and public define environmental stamps. I have much work ahead of me, still, but I’ll proceed with sketchbook in hand. It is through drawing that I make history.

Featured Image: Research drawing that connects flower motifs to environmental protection. All drawings by Silke Vetter-Schultheiss.

Silke Vetter-Schultheiss is a visiting research scholar at the Center for Culture, History and Environment at UW–Madison. She is a graduate student in environmental history in Topology of Technology at TU Darmstadt in Germany. Her research interests include history of environmental movements, picture theory, philosophy of history and theory of history. Right now she is working on her dissertation about the imagery of West German environmentalism from 1950 to 1990. During her stay in Madison she rediscovered her fascination for infographics. Contact

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