Frederick N. Bohrer
The photographic reproduction of artworks as a phase in the struggle between photography and painting.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project [Y1a, 3]
Could there be art history without photography? Photography has arguably been the indispensable technology of modern art history. Thus Ivan Gaskell remarks that: “Photography has subtly, radically and directly transformed the discipline of art history …” 1 Few would dispute his statement that: “Almost all [art historians] make daily use of [photography] whether as illustrations, aids to memory, or as substitutes for objects depicted by its means.”
Still, at least at first glance, one can only puzzle at the equally inarguable fact, also mentioned by Gaskell, that: “Most members of these professions [such as art history] have avoided explicitly considering the consequences of photography as it affects their own work, as well as on a larger scale.” 2 This strange fact might be taken to indicate just how socialized into their discipline art historians must be to largely ignore the precise thing constantly before their eyes. It may not be too much to suggest that this situation hints at an almost conscious refusal to explore the many issues raised by photography as it conditions and constrains art historical practice. This brief chapter can only touch on a few aspects of art history's effective overlooking, or even repression, of the distinct representational, historical and didactic significance of photography, as art history's chosen visual medium. One hopes at least that the (potentially vast) stakes of this examination can be intimated.
This chapter will be divided into two sections, each of which takes up a fundamental question brought up by art history's embrace of photography. First, has photography fulfilled the claims made for it? To consider this fundamentally historical question I want to assess in contemporary terms some of the moments in the later nineteenth century in which photography was first adopted to art history. Second is a related, but more broadly theoretical