Photographies: New Histories, New Practices

Foreword for unpublished book based on PHOTOGRAPHIES: NEW HISTORIES, NEW PRACTICES conference at ANU

As a discipline, the history of photography has undergone significant transformation in the past few decades. It has long since overflowed the channels of traditional art history which it first followed. and has now become concerned with more than establishing the canonic artists of the medium, or tracing the teleologies and genealogies of its visual styles or artistic genres. Scholars in disciplines as diverse as anthropology, history and cultural studies have found many uses for photographs and much to explore. Since the early 1980s these developments have been chronicled in such signal articles as Douglas Crimp’s ‘The Museum’s Old / The Library’s New Subject’.[1] It could be argued that the particular ubiquity of photographs has driven the whole ‘pictorial turn’ in philosophy where, as W. J. T. Mitchell describes it, ‘pictures form a point of peculiar friction and discomfort across a broad range of intellectual enquiry … emerging as a central topic of discussion in the human sciences in the way that language [once] did …’.[2]

This broad pictorial turn in the humanities has been complemented by a cultural and social turn in the history of photography itself. The histories which are now most commonly referred to by photography students, such as Mary Warner Marien’s Photography: A Cultural History or Michel Frizot’s A New History of Photography, tend to follow the innovative model established by books such as Giséle Freund’s Photography and Society, with its separate sections each tackling a different aspect of the medium, rather than once classic texts such as Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography, with it cumulative teleology of styles and techniques.[3] Current photographic histories approach the problem of photography from a variety of different directions, and discuss the medium by taking different slices through it, or core sample from it, rather than telling it as a unified story. Chapter headings in generalist histories of photography are now more likely to be conjunctive phrases such as ‘Photography and War’, Photography and Science’, or ‘Photography and the Body’, rather than the bald labels of particular genres or periods within photography. Another new approach to photographic history, exemplified by Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs, is to focus down to a small selection of key images as the starting points for broader investigations into the various ideas that every photograph mobilises.[4]

Anthologies such as Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson’s Photography’s Other Histories have gone even further towards breaking apart the pre-given mold in which photographic history has been cast.[5] In books such as these, photography is a powerful cultural practice performed differently by different cultures, at different times, and in different private or public contexts. It produces meanings which are far from being self-evident or universal, but which can nonetheless empower cross-cultural dialogue. Other anthropologically orientated anthologies, such as Elizabeth Edwards’s Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality if Images, have focussed not on photography as an ever-widening pool of images, but the photograph itself as a discrete anthropological artefact.[6] This shift of critical focus away from interpreting the visual content of images towards understanding the social exchange of images as objects, is characteristic of recent photographic scholarship.

Perhaps this shift has been accelerated by the fact that photography has finally ceded to new media its position as the ultimate medium of theoretical contemporaneity. Several decades ago the photograph, with it ubiquitous presence throughout culture and society, was the very sign of contemporary experience within cultural theory. Now the explosion of new media has eclipsed it. But even within new media the single photograph survives, pretty much in tact, as an absolutely crucial and fundamental component of the accelerated trajectories of mobile and on-line technologies. Today photographs are taken in their billions to be emailed or uploaded, but in the nineteenth century they were also taken in their hundreds of thousands to be circulated amongst individuals. The discourses generated by new media therefore continue to owe much to the history and theory of photography, while the study of photography itself continues its close attention to the continuing reality of photographs in our lives.

None of the disciplines that have recently turned to photographs for new sources of meaning have been able to use them as simple, unproblematic evidence for historical research or cultural discourse. Photographs are, and remain, not just slippery semiotically, but also ambiguous ontologically; so their simultaneous status as historical documents, physical objects and time events continues to be explored and re-explored by a widening range of theorists, philosophers and writers. Even literary writers are undergoing a photographic turn. Photographs have become literary objects, as much as artistic objects, found in novels as well as in art galleries. The photograph has long been used as a figurative metaphor or a plot device for novelists exploring the memories or desires of their characters, but now actual photographs are being used, not as extraneous ‘illustrations’, but as textual operators. W. G. Sebald is the most famous of a range of writers who have recently used the deadpan allusiveness of the photograph as an integral, if not entirely comfortable, component of their texts, to be read by the reader in the same poetical mode as the words in which they are embedded. Sebald’s literary photography is now even beginning to have an impact back onto art photographers.[7]

Photographs have therefore been the grist to many mills. They have given rise to an extraordinarily rich and varied quantity of research, writing and speculation — from historical research to imaginative creative writing — in an extraordinarily diverse range of theoretical contexts. Photographs are convenient because there is no shortage of them and they are all around us all the time. Nothing is simpler than plucking some out and turning them to work. But often in this work the photograph itself is considered with only enough attention to make a larger point, before any further investigation of it is dropped. The specificity of the individual photograph itself, along with all of its attendant uses and re-uses over time, its transformations and modifications as both physical object and mobile image, are often left far behind. The meanings of particular photographs have formed a key currency of critical thought in disciplines such as history, cultural studies, anthropology, and so on. But once those meanings get caught up in the theoretical streams within whatever discipline they are serving, they sometimes seem to flow over and around the actual photographs themselves, forming larger currents that, through their own dynamic turbulence, obscure the original objects beneath.

Lately, however, a wider and wider range of scholars are turning back to the photograph itself, as both a semiotic event and a material artefact. They work from the photograph up, rather than the theory down. They do this not to re-invent some kind of connoisseurship of the artefact, or to reduce the image to a static collection of facts, but to assert that much remains to be learnt by returning as often as possible to the source of photographic meaning, which is not just particular photographers, nor just particular reproductive technologies, but both of them together. Photographs are dense complex things in their own right, and these scholars want to slow our attention down to give that density its due. Each of the authors, irrespective of their interest or approach, have been primarily driven by the particular qualities of particular photographs. This turn to the specificity of the photograph itself is the first of three themes which run through the chapters in this book.

For instance, Geoffrey Batchen’s research re-embeds photographs in the context that gave rise to them in the first place, which is never just the rarified thoughts and feelings of the photographer, or their visionary ambition, but often complex commercial imperatives and technological realities. From this basis he has been able to propose an alternative model of photographic history which puts photography as work at its centre. In discussing the rivalry between Talbot’s photographic business in Reading which used his own process, and the first studios in London which licensed the daguerreotype process, Batchen establishes that photographs are never just the product of one local context, they were always, right from the moment of their origin, embedded in international currents.

As well as the importance of a close attention to the photograph as object, the currents through which these photographs circled the globe form the second dominant theme of this book. But in addition, we shift the focus of these global currents southwards, away from the dominant presence of Europe and America as the site for photographic history, towards Asia and the Pacific. For too long the photography of these regions, where the global politics and social change of the last two hundred and fifty years has been at its most raw and intense, has only been seen reflected in the mirror of European and American photography. Questions were often framed merely in terms of how Asia and the Pacific changed European and American photographers as they passed through the region, or how the careers of Asian and Pacific photographers could be stitched into larger global narratives generated in Europe and America. The writers in this collection are not interested in such an approach because they start from specific photographs in specific contexts.

Ken Hall, for example, starts with an almost forensic examination of a partially obscured inscription on an early studio group portrait depicting a British colonist settler and a group of South Island Maori, and then proceeds to open the image out to a large and complex story. John L. Tran looks at Taisho Pictorialism, a Japanese strain of the global Pictorialist movement, which used Pictorialist nostalgia to help construct an emerging Japanese identity. Likewise, Victoria Garnons-Williams casts a new and surprising light on the well-known Grafton Aboriginal portraits of J.W. Lindt. These images have long circulated in Australian history almost as icons of the colonial treatment of Aborigines. However Garnos-Williams returns to their source in Grafton, to the almost microscopic surface of the photograph itself. Other chapters read and analyse well-know photographs with an unprecedented closeness, and with an unprecedented access to the original context of their production to offer new and more complex understandings. For instance Shelley Rice’s survey of the evolution of political directorial photography and masquerade within American photography, and its complex relationship to photography’s more usual ‘documentary’ and touristic function, is given even more complexity in terms of the globalised currents of identity politics when photographers such as Australia’s Fiona Foley and Samoa’s Shigeyuki Kihara are added to the discussion.

These chapters reflect the recent burgeoning scholarship from Australian and New Zealand Universities, and reveal the fresh perspectives that are still being opened up by the close reading of key photographs and collections. For instance through Tim Smith’s detailed work on the glass plates of the photographer Paul Foelsche, a more complete understanding of the circumstances behind the photographs emerges which complicates the historical narratives they have previously been used to justify. Max Quanchi analyses a large collection of postcards from four Pacific colonies in the late nineteen and early twentieth centuries. His quantitative analysis of the various categories of subject matter, as well as his analysis of individual images, reveals a unified visual construction of the colonial world which was posted back to various metropolitan centres, irrespective of whether the colonies were German, British, French or Australian.

In a more poetic meditation on the ontology of photography, Australian novelist Gail Jones, who is well known for using the idea of photography as an element in her fiction, considers the encounters with portrait photography of a wide range of writers, from Henry James to Don DeLillo. All of her literary sources have responded in various ways to the subtle, yet compelling mysticism of photographs, which for them comes from the ambiguous and mysterious relationship in each of the images they encounter between fixity and flux, presence and absence.

In this final chapter Jones homes in on what has emerged as a third major theme of this book: that is, that the return to the specificity of the photograph as object, and the increased attention to the networks and flows in which those photographs are embedded, only brings us closer to the photograph’s ultimate ineffability. No matter how forensically close we get to actual images, to the faces and the eyes of their subjects, and no matter how detailed and sophisticated our analysis of the specific conditions of their production and dissemination, it is still the narrow but unbridgeable fissure between reality and the uncanny copy of that reality that drives our fascination with the photograph. As Jones quotes Giorgio Agamben, the photograph remains the site of a gap, a ‘sublime breech’ between what we can see and what we can know.

Martyn Jolly and Helen Ennis

Crimp, D. (1989). The Museum’s Old/The Library’s new Subject. The Contest of meaning : critical histories of photography. R. Bolton. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press: xix, 407 p.

Edwards, E. and J. Hart (2004). Photographs objects histories : on the materiality of images. London ; New York, Routledge.

Freund, G. (1980). Photography & society. London, Fraser.

Frizot, M. (1998). A new history of photography. Köln, Könemann.

Marien, M. W. (2006). Photography : a cultural history. London, Laurence King.

“This survey of international photography, which examines the discipline across the full range of its uses by both professionals and amateurs, has been expanded and brought up to date for this second edition. Each of the eight chapters takes a period of up to forty years and examines the medium through the lenses of art, science, social science, travel, war, fashion, the mass media and individual practitioners.”–BOOK JACKET.

Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994). The Pictorial Turn. Picture theory : essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 11 – 34.

Newhall, B. (1997). The history of photography : from 1839 to the present. New York

Boston, Museum of Modern Art ;

Distributed by Bulfinch/Little Brown.

Patt, L., Dlilbohner, et al. (2007). Searching for Sebald : photography after W. G. Sebald. Los Angeles, Calif., Institute of Cultural Inquiry.

Pinney, C. and N. Peterson (2003). Photography’s other histories. Durham, Duke University Press.


[1] Crimp, D. (1989). The Museum’s Old/The Library’s new Subject. The Contest of meaning : critical histories of photography. R. Bolton. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press: xix, 407 p.

[2] Mitchell, W. J. T. (1994). The Pictorial Turn. Picture theory : essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: p13.

[3] Marien, M. W. (2006). Photography : a cultural history. London, Laurence King.
Frizot, M. (1998). A new history of photography. Köln, Könemann.
Freund, G. (1980). Photography & society. London, Fraser.
Newhall, B. (1997). The history of photography : from 1839 to the present. New York Boston, Museum of Modern Art ; Distributed by Bulfinch/Little Brown.

[4] Howarth, Sophie, (Ed.) (2006) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs, New York, Aperture

[5] Pinney, C. and N. Peterson (2003). Photography’s other histories. Durham, Duke University Press.

[6] Edwards, E. and J. Hart (2004). Photographs objects histories : on the materiality of images. London ; New York, Routledge.

[7] Patt, L., Dlilbohner, et al. (2007). Searching for Sebald : photography after W. G. Sebald. Los Angeles, Calif., Institute of Cultural Inquiry.

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