Archival Meaning: Materiality, Digitization, and the Nineteenth-Century Photograph

Afterimage, May-June 2009 | Go to article overview

Archival Meaning: Materiality, Digitization, and the Nineteenth-Century Photograph


Just as the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology was being founded at Harvard in 1866, Alexander Gardner was photographing native American tribal delegations in images that fused portrait with typology (now at the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives at the National Museum of Natural History) and the geological surveys of the United States turned a similarly classifying eye to the American West. At the Peabody, photographic images stood as documentary evidence in the study of culture or as evidence of processes and procedures by which those cultures became the object of study. Its nineteenth-century collections include over 10,000 glass negative plates and an estimated 100,000 to 125,000 prints. Ever since the 1980s, when daguerreotypes of Sea Island slaves commissioned by Louis Agassiz showed up in a storage cabinet, there has been a sense that the museum's photography collections have much to say about the terms on which knowledge was constructed through the twin institutions of the nineteenth-century museum and photography.

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The museum's contemporary galleries continue to rely on the nineteenth-century photograph as illustration and verification. One case in the Pacific Islands exhibit displays a basket collected by naturalist Alexander Agassiz during an 1896 expedition; next to it is a photograph of a bare-breasted woman with a similar basket. Without captions, both the object and the photograph are meant to speak for themselves. The basket, not the woman's body, is the important object that requires validation, even as her body authenticates the othered (and anthropological) qualities of herself and the object. Which is to say that, in places, photographs still operate in the museum under assumptions of authenticity and transparency photographs document authentic cultural rituals and authenticate the museum's objects unmediated by the cultures that produced them or that are their subjects.

In the last year, two exhibits, "'A Good Type': Tourism and Science in Early Japanese Photography" (exhibited October 2007 April 2008) and "Fragile Memories: Images of Archaeology and Community at Copan, 1891-1900" (exhibited June 2008-March 2009), complicate such uses of photographs as documentary objects and instead highlight the ways in which the interplay of archival storage, materiality, and technology are re-shaping the reading of the nineteenth-century photograph. At issue here is the photograph's relationship to history, which, as conceived of in Roland Barthes's terms as "that has been," (1) Dis photography as taxidermy. The meaning of the image is fixed at the moment of its making and cannot change no matter how or when or who looks--the history that matters is the moment of the photograph's making. By focusing on the photograph as object and the terms on which digitization is changing access to photographs as archival objects, these exhibits prompt a rethinking of the history of nineteenth-century photography as a history of what is collected and what is seen, what is stored and what is forgotten.

The theoretical premise of "A Good Type" is that photographic meaning is not produced by the universalizing equalizer of the archive but by tracing the material conditions under which a photograph was produced, collected, and archived. The exhibit takes its title from a photograph made in the 1870s by Baron Raimund von Stillfried, from the collection of William Sturgis Bigelow (whose fine arts collection is the basis for the extraordinary Japanese collections of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts), donated to the Peabody in 1927. The image, known as Singing Girl, bears Bigelow's note: "Shows very well how a Japanese woman's dress looks when properly put on. A Good Type." That the image is a commercially produced studio pose, created by a foreign photographer, collected by a renowned art collector, and then accessioned as an anthropological photograph, traces the photograph's discursive history as it moves from commercial stereotype to anthropological type, all the while relying on the photograph's status as transparent evidence to construct vastly different bodies of knowledge.

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