Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Photography Theory

It doesn’t take much to realize how digital photography has thrown photography, and all its various manifestations and theories about them, into another realm. Digital photography has a more tenuous relationship to reality than that of earlier photographic forms. Now a photograph is information and does not become an image until called up and tinkered with, exaggerating all of the earlier debates about just what a photograph’s image is – art or reality, for example. Critics, historians, and other scholars long ago abandoned thinking of any photographic image as just a frozen moment in time and space, adopting far more complicated concepts of what the image is, but a digital photograph seems more complex by many orders of magnitude, mainly because it is so much more malleable.

James Elkins, ed., Photography Theory (New York: Routledge, 2007) provides a compendium of views and attitudes about the nature of photography, representing a wide range of theoretical perspectives. The book starts with a nice introduction on “Theories of Photography: A Short History” by Sabine T. Kriebel, with a particular slant to considering the implications of technological changes on the nature of photography. Then the core part of the part reproduces a dialogue among nine artists, photographers, and experts on photography about the nature of photography and various conceptual notions of what it represents. One emerges from this with a lot more to think about when looking at a photograph.

Photography Theory also includes a series of shorter essays on topics such as photographic history, the relationship of painting to photography, and semiotics. Throughout these essays there are engaging reflections to mull over. Sharon Sliwinski writes, for example: “In a sense, I suspect photography theory has begun to evaporate, for a whole range of reasons. Perhaps the main one is that photography itself in its analogue form has already been dispersed by scientists, media institutions, the police, artists, and travelers: its dispersion began as soon as it was invented, so that photography has served a myriad of institutional purposes. Now photography is mutating into a digital environment where the boundaries are even less clear” (p. 255). If this is the case, how has the description by archivists of photographic sources changed or does it need to change? We know that we face greater challenges in such tasks, especially as Martin Lister reminds us, “The oldest of modern media, photography (and radio and the telephone) now exists in a media ecology that was probably unthinkable even fifteen years ago” (p. 352).

However, as we struggle to consider the new technological underpinnings of photographic processes, we also must remind ourselves that technological transformations have always pushed us to rethink this particular recording media. As Anne McCauley writes, “Like early writing about film, nineteenth-century literature on photography was defensive in nature. Established artists, aristocrats, and intellectuals attacked the new technology as mechanical, mindless, inferior, vulgar, and servile, while the new practitioners, equipment manufacturers, scientists, progressives, populists, and positivists had to defend it as contributing to knowledge, amazingly detailed, better than the handmade, efficient, true, real, and possibly even beautiful, artistic, and immortal” (p. 406).

This is a useful book for anyone interested in photography, it’s meaning, and the nature of what it conveys.