Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images

By Elizabeth Edwards; Janice Hart | Go to book overview

5

MAKING MEANING

Displaced materiality in the library and art museum

Glenn Willumson


Introduction

Although they are initially treasured for their ability to reproduce a person, an event or a location, the passage of time is not kind to photographs. As connection is lost and memory fades, photographs are quickly stored in boxes and albums. They are moved to attics and basements until, eventually, they become merely discarded objects. Over the decades a few hundred thousand survive as they pass through a series of commercial exchanges from private hands to those of booksellers and antique dealers. Of those preserved images, a few tens of thousands are of enough educational or aesthetic merit to rate the attention of a cultural institution such as a library or art museum. Of these, a small fraction is judged to be of high enough quality or great enough rarity to enter into the permanent collections of these cultural institutions. This movement and shifting from private to public, from commercial commodity to a confined social meaning and back to commodity on the art market, marks the photo-object. 1 Too often this socio-cultural inscription suppresses the materiality of photographs as they are squeezed within the rhetorics of canonical histories of photography and their concomitant spaces of collection and exhibition. Historically, even when attention is paid to the materiality of photographs, as is the case with the fine art print by the master photographer, it is submerged beneath the discourse of aesthetics.

Moving through time and across our cultural horizon, manifesting themselves at different moments and in diverse places, photographs are marked by their trajectory. In using this term I am thinking not of the sharp, straight lines of geometry, but of the incomplete, soft-edged outline of a vapour trail. This ephemeral trace is difficult to track in some places, more clear in others and obvious at its intersection with the object. It delineates not only the biography of the photograph but also the histories of the persons and places that house it. Until recently, scholarship had been so dazzled by the luminescence of the image that it ignored the photograph's physicality and the evanescent trail that it had left in its wake. This chapter explores the materiality of the image and its supporting medium (album page, cardboard mount or museum mat) and outlines its trajectory. Furthermore, it discusses those historical moments that can still be seen in its atmospheric trail and how these gossamer traces suggest the evaluation of photographs as different kinds of historical objects whose meaning changes in

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Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Acknowledgements xi
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • 2 - Un Beau Souvenir Du Canada 16
  • 3 - Ere the Substance Fade 32
  • 4 - Mixed Box 47
  • 5 - Making Meaning 62
  • 6 - Making a Journey 81
  • 7 - Photographic Playing Cards and the Colonial Metaphor 96
  • 8 - 'Under the Gaze of the Ancestors' 113
  • 9 - The Photograph Reincarnate 132
  • 10 - 'Photo-Cross' 148
  • 11 - Print Club Photography in Japan 166
  • 12 - Photographic Materiality in the Age of Digital Reproduction 186
  • References 203
  • Index 219
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