Recently, I was asked to do a presentation on why photographic history matters. Here was my response:
In this presentation, I will argue that photographic history matters as never before. Its potential as a method of research turn it into a critical and strategic discipline in academia. More important, photographic history matters because it makes a positive impact on areas such as teaching, digital humanities, public engagement and policymaking.
Photographic history examines photographs, both in their physical and digital presentation, as well as a broad array of material, from cameras to developing processes, artificial lighting, printing and enlargement techniques, journals, treatises, magazines, etc. In some cases the sources coincide with the object of study. For instance, in works dedicated to photographers or to particular genres. In other cases, photographic materials are the sources but not the object of study. Photographs have been used to examine, for instance, the standardisation of the workers’ bodily movements. This distinction between sources and object of study is key to understanding the particularity and the potential of photographic history.
In historiographical terms, this rupture can be considered as a radical act. It involved the recognition that photography does not constitute a separate realm in society, but it is deeply ingrained in cultural, social, political, economic and scientific processes. In this context, historians started to consider photographs outside the canon and their role, for instance, in State surveillance. Photographs stopped being passive recorders to become active agents in the shaping of history.
Photographic history asks, therefore, what photography does. This question is central to the research and teaching of the PHRC and to my own thinking as well. I would say that it is the question of photographic history. Granting agency to photography involves examining the effects of taking, exchanging, storing, displaying, cataloguing, consuming and posing for photographs. In this line, James L Hevia has coined the concept ‘the photography complex’, which understands photography as a ‘heading under which a range of agencies, animate and inanimate, visible and invisible, are clustered.’
I find this definition particularly useful to explore the importance of photographic history as a heuristic method of research. Hevia not only insist on the agency of photography. He describes the photographic complex as the camera including all its elements, negatives and positive prints, chemicals, reproductive technologies, the photographer, the photographed person, the network of circulation and distribution, the storage of photographs, and even optic theory and light itself. All these elements can be explored separately, but in order to understand the photography complex we need to address how they interact with each other. This idea, with slight variations, is also present in other works in photographic history. For instance, studies on visual economy, which examine how meaning is created through the circulation of photographs, and works on social biography, which explore the ‘life’ and different uses of a particular photograph or photographic image. The three trends propose three different models to examine interdependence, but they all agree in considering photography as a material practice: something that we do with physical objects.
These studies favour the notion of the network against the traditional attention to the photographic image and the photographer’s intention. They shift the focus away from the image, to examine photographic practices and materials. Photographic history examines, in this regard, the interplay of objects, images, texts, ideas and practices –and all these elements are interconnected. Let’s take the example of chronophotography. Image were valued because they made visible what is invisible to the naked eye. But chronophotography cannot be understood only through its images. We need to take objects into account: both the prints and books in which the images were published, and the camera, including the number of shutters, the shutters’ speed, the emulsions of the plates, etc. Likewise, we need to think about the performances of both photographer and the model, which needed to be synchronised to get a good result, the text of the captions and the books which included them, and the theories of physiology on which these experiments were based.
If we understand photography as this complex, this network of images, objects, texts, practices and ideas, then photographic history matters because it provides a privileged prism to examine cultural, social, political and all sorts of historical processes. This privileged prism can make important contributions to other disciplines. For the same reason, photographic history needs to dialogue with other disciplines.
There are multiple examples of the interdisciplinarity which I believe is intrinsic to photographic history. For example, it has had a great impact on the history of sciences. Considering photographic practices as instruments has demonstrated the key role that photographs have had in observation and experimentation. It has also contributed to a better understanding of the actual implementation of the ideal of ‘objectivity’, which we know was never fully achieved. These works have established that photographic images were not always seen as objective documents, and more important, that the definition of objectivity often relied on local practices. Tracing photographic practices in the context of sciences has allowed the analysis of both the particularities of local uses as well as the circulation and exchange of knowledge, images and instruments, showing also the global aspects of photography.
The focus on photographic practices has also influenced new historiographical approaches to the war. The inclusion of family and private documents is linked to a growing interest in microhistories among cultural historians. The photographic collection produced by one, two or three combatants or civilians can tell us about everyday experiences and contribute to a ‘history from below’. But there is also potential for macro histories as well through the accumulation and comparison of cases.
Precisely because photographic history acknowledges the global character of photography but encourages local and micro approaches, it has been a key tool in uncovering histories of minorities and marginalised communities. In fact, some of the best works in the field have avoided a European and colonial perspective of photographic conventions to examine local uses of portraits in India or black photography during the Apartheid. More recent works have focused on queer photography and LGTB histories in an attempt to vindicate other sexualities and subjectivities.
All these studies depend, of course, on archives, belonging to institutions or not. As it happens with other sources, the greatest challenge of the historian is to find the adequate sources in archives. But photographs that do not belong to the canon are often dispersed, lack essential information such as dates, places, photographer, etc. or are not catalogued at all. Moreover, photographic collections can be massive, containing several thousands of prints. Photographic history has needed to confront its own limits in the archive, figuring out ways to counteract this lack of information and even the absence of documents. In this process, it has contributed to rethink the notion and function of the archive. Jennifer Tucker has argued that these limitations of photographic evidences are but the limits of any historical evidence. For Tucker, when we struggle to make sense of photographic documents we are pushing the limits of the historical analysis. As an academic discipline, this is why photographic history matters.
As I said at the beginning of this presentation, it also matters because it can reach beyond the academia to make a positive impact on individuals and communities.
The first area I want to explore in this regard is higher education, drawing on my own experience here at De Montfort University and the University of Nottingham. After two years teaching, my conclusion is that photographic history requires from the students a set of skills that are different from other historical modules. At the beginning of the year, students always take photographs at face value: they focus on whether the content of the image is an accurate and truthful representation of reality. But as the module goes, they start thinking of photography in a different way. They are confronted with the limitations of photographic sources, which are often ‘mute’ with no information left at the archives. But they are also confronted with the greatest potential of photographs: the awakening of historical imagination and creativity. By examining photographic archives, students have analysed, for instance, the changing norms of gender roles at the beginning of the twentieth century, the popularity of the suffragettes in Leicester or the evolution of leisure in Britain. Working with archival collections has not only inspired them to think about everyday history and local history. Handling the photographs and journals has incited questions on the materiality of the sources.
Students who are trained in visual analysis, like the historians of art I teach at Nottingham, also believe that photography demands different skills from them. In this group, doing photographic history has stimulated a lot of research on the social lives of photographs, which are turned into sculptures and mural paintings, and whether extreme suffering should be looked at or represented at all.
I think classes in photographic history change the students’ idea of photography, but also their thinking about History. Some have said that photographic history makes history more ‘real’. This sense of reality is due not only to the fact that, through photographs, they “see” history. In a deeper level, photography makes history more real, more tangible, because it makes them think about microhistories and disentangle complex networks of images, objects and practices.
Photographic history also makes important contributions in the fields of digital humanities and public engagement, especially in projects that are not only addressed to academics, but are intended to foster collaboration between ‘experts’ and ‘laypeople’. This is the case of the Zooniverse projects, which aim to promote ‘citizen science’. They are based on volunteers who contribute to collaborative research by transcribing texts or identifying particular items, like Science Gossip and Orchid Observers. These two projects already include photographs or engravings from a photograph, and have received thousands of collaborations. This success demonstrates that this kind of material is appealing, and therefore that photographic history digital projects have the potential to engage wider communities with academic research.
While the Zooniverse projects provide the material to the public, projects such as the People’s History of the NHS crowdsource material from the people. The priority is getting personal stories, but they also welcome images and photographs. For instance, this gallery on Nursing Schools in the 1960s, where all the images belong to the private collection of the nurse Anna Page. This is interesting precisely because the website and the project are not focused on photography, but integrate photographs as sources for a collective cultural history of the NHS. The project is still in its first stage, but it already shows how photographic history can bridge academic research, personal archives and everyday experiences.
Public photographic history through activities and workshops which crowdsource photographs to make a collective history. In 2014, my colleague Leticia Fernandez Fontecha organised a public workshop in Madrid. Her activity revolved around family photography. Leticia first explored her own history through photographs of her grandmother, her mother and herself, looking at the representation of mother-daughter relationships, but also at the uses of photography. For instance, she realised that all the photographs of her childhood had been taken with disposable cameras, although her family could have easily afforded a good camera. The participants also brought their own photographs of childhood. The collective looking at these photographs, the discussion of repetitive absences or the distinctive uses of different cameras helped some of the participants to understand their own family dynamics. Here, photographs worked as props to re-evaluate personal family histories.
Finally, an area to explore is policy engaging. I follow in this regard the example set by the network “History & Policy”, which communicates researchers, policy makers and journalists to examine how history can influence policies and practice today. I believe that photographic history should join this discussion. Our culture is saturated with photographs that travel across the public and the private space, and some of these uses are regulated by different bodies. Photographic history can provided a detailed and rigorous background of the continuities and changes in practices, which can help policy makers frame problems in a more productive way.
To conclude, photographic history matters because it has societal value. It makes a positive impact on students and wider communities, particularly for its ability to connect personal histories, everyday histories and academic research. As a discipline, photographic history matters because it broadens our understanding of history.
 James L. Hevia, “The photography complex. Exposing Boxer-Era China (1900-1901), Making Civilization”, in Rosaling Morris (ed) Photographies East. The Camera and its Histories in East and Southeast Asia, 2009.