Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images

Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images

Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images

Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images


This innovative volume explores the idea that while photographs are images, they are also objects, and this materiality is integral to their meaning and use. The case studies presented focus on photographs active in different institutional, political, religious and domestic spheres, where physical properties, the nature of their use and the cultural formations in which they function make their 'objectness' central to how we should understand them.The book's contributions are drawn from disciplines including the history of photography, visual anthropology and art history, with case studies from a range of countries such as the Netherlands, North America, Australia, Japan, Romania and Tibet. Each shows the methodological strategies they have developed in order to fully exploit the idea of the materiality of photographic images.


Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart

The photograph was very old, the corners were blunted from having been pasted in an album, the sepia print had faded, and the picture just managed to show two children standing together at the end of a little wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory, what was called a Winter Garden in those days.

(Barthes 1984:67)

In one of the most famous and influential descriptions in the whole literature of photography, what Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida describes first is not the image of the two children but a material object. It is a photograph that carries on it the marks of its own history, of its chemical deterioration ('the sepia print had faded'), and the fact that it once belonged to a broader visual narrative, pasted in an album, the pages of which were, we can conjecture, repeatedly handled as they were turned, re-enacting its narrative in many different contexts.

The central rationale of Photographs Objects Histories is that a photograph is a three-dimensional thing, not only a two-dimensional image. As such, photographs exist materially in the world, as chemical deposits on paper, as images mounted on a multitude of different sized, shaped, coloured and decorated cards, as subject to additions to their surface or as drawing their meanings from presentational forms such as frames and albums. Photographs are both images and physical objects that exist in time and space and thus in social and cultural experience. They have 'volume, opacity, tactility and a physical presence in the world' (Batchen 1997:2) and are thus enmeshed with subjective, embodied and sensuous interactions. These characteristics cannot be reduced to an abstract status as a commodity, nor to a set of meanings or ideologies that take the image as their pretext. Instead, they occupy spaces, move into different spaces, following lines of passage and usage that project them through the world (Straw 1998:2). As all the chapters here demonstrate in their different ways, thinking materially about photography encompasses processes of intention, making, distributing, consuming, using, discarding and recycling (Attfield 2000:3), all of which impact on the way in which photographs as images are understood.

For many decades writing on photography has resonated with references to the photograph as object. These references have made tantalizing and fleeting appearances, never to be pursued fully or systematically (a point to which we shall return). Frequently photography's materiality is engaged with only in relation to the coinnosseurial

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