Photographic History, History and Photography

It’s been a while since I want to blog about this. This month I have been presenting my work in workshops to other historians and I always had the same impression: interest in my work but also some kind of distance. Is it really that different what I do than from what they do? I mean, just because I examine photographs should I belong to a different kind of history form the one made by texts? I don’t think so, and I’ll try to explain why.

The reason lies in the difference between “History of photography” and “Photographic history”. “History of photography” would be the historical analysis of photographic images, techniques, production, consumption, etc. For its turn, “Photographic history” would be the history that is made through photographic sources -photographs, negatives, cameras, developing techniques, printed photographs, altered photographs, engravings from photographs, and why not, photographs that were never taken. One could say that the rough material is the same in both cases, and probably it is. But not the history we make. In “Photographic history” we do not historise photography for its own sake, but we bring photography to the centre of historical analysis in order to clarify and understand a particular historical question not necessarily related to photography. How did psychology create expressions as scientific objects? How did people in England think about their villages in terms of historical heritage at the turn of the 20th century?* These and other questions are about cultural, social and scientific processes that could be examined through textual sources. So, why do we do “photographic history” when we can do just “history”?

I was trained in philosophy and history of sciences, and came to photography by chance. But I soon realised the advantages of this approach. By doing “photographic history” we do not only examine images and representations. Taking photography seriously means examining a whole set of images, practices, objects and performances. Some of them are certainly described in texts, but others don’t. We need to imagine, from the material traces left, the ways in which particular photographs and technologies could be used, which would be the main problems of their use, and the skills that photographers and models would need.

These analyses bring into light questions that can be overlooked if we only examine texts. I truly believe that this is a valuable approach that can contribute to debates about how we make history. And this is why I think that this photographic history shouldn’t be considered as something different than other kinds of history -in my case the history of sciences, medicine, and technology. Actually, I find more useful works in this field that in art history of visual studies. This is not history of representations, but a history of practices and technologies.

*This question is based on the work of Elizabeth Edwards, director of the Photographic History Research Centre, de Montfort University (where I work!), The Camera as Historian