History of Photography: The State of Research

By Nickel, Douglas R. | The Art Bulletin, September 2001 | Go to article overview

History of Photography: The State of Research


Nickel, Douglas R., The Art Bulletin


Fifteen years ago there appeared in these pages a brief statement by then Art Bulletin editor Richard E. Spear announcing a series of stock-taking essays on the principal fields of the discipline. These were intended to address "the current state of art-historical research" and question "those recent research tendencies that appear to be most important intellectually." The impetus for the series was reported unambiguously: Spear, as the quarterly's manager, had observed what he held to be a disturbing downward trend in the quality of manuscripts submitted to it-to the point where peer review judged five out of six unworthy of publication, for want of "substantive art-historical contribution" or failure to raise any question whatsoever involving "historical consequence." Openly concerned for the scholastic well-being of the discipline and troubled that this trend from history to theory might indicate some kind of growing taxonomic incoherence, the editor prescribed his course of methodological self-examinations as a way to diagnose "what research methods are producing the most promising results, and how scholarly inquiry from other disciplines may be affecting art history, whether beneficially or not." Some essays would extol experimentation and interdisciplinarity, he predicted, while others would oppose change in favor of what the editor termed "conventional approaches."1

The history of photography never appeared among the topics in this first series of deliberations on the state of research. From an editorial standpoint, this is no surprise: photographic subjects had as a rule fallen outside the wonted purview of the Art Bulletin, deemed better suited to occasional treatment in the pages of the College Art Association's second house organ, the Art Journal, and other periodicals than to the organization's more established quarterly.2 Yet, ironically, at the very moment of the so-called crisis in the discipline there stood no province of art historical writing more contested along these exact lines-methodologically, ideologically, as theory-than photographic history. A latecomer to institutional attention and intellectual respectability, the field suddenly found itself in the 1980s in the uncomfortable position of being the arriviste of academic subjects, both newly sanctioned by officialdom and an occasion for heated controversy. As the decade witnessed, on the one hand, endowed chairs and university courses created specifically to address a burgeoning interest in photography and its history, increasing numbers of doctoral students gravitating toward study in the area, the widening popularity of photographic activities within museums and the book trade, and a voracious new collecting market, it also encountered a growing body of critical writing that took exception to the methods of photography's formal canonization, one that argued against the mapping of traditional art historical approaches and values onto photographic subjects and, ultimately, for the nonidentity of photography and photographic history itself.

We might imagine this situation as having two moving targets-the advent of a permanent critique of the domain nominally indicated "the history of photography" at the moment of, and in reaction to, its academization on the pattern of (chiefly) the history of art, and the concurrent event of art history itself emerging as an unsettled, contested discipline internally at odds about method, theory, and its relationship to the sphere of visual culture. This situation, generally speaking, obtains today.

But is the history of photography a discrete field? Or is it an essentially interdisciplinary area of study, and if so, how then does it stand in relation to the "conventional approaches" of art history? Does it have its own traditions, canon, and literature? Is photography, in the last analysis, a medium? A set of social practices? A technology with its own identity, unique in its imagistic capacities? …

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