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.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Photographic Sketches

Anthony W. Lee and Elizabeth Young, On Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Gardner’s photographs were published in 1866 in two volumes at the then enormous sale price of $150. While the publishing venture was a failure, the Gardner photographs ultimately emerged as one of the most groups of photographs depicting the American Civil War. As Lee, an art historian, and Young, a literary scholar, analyze the Sketch Book, they remind us that very little has been written about it.

Lee considers the images in the book, arguing that Gardner managed to go beyond the limitations of the then young technology to capture the “disruptive, disjointed, and retrospective experience of war” (p. 9). Lee places Gardner in the context of the nature of photography as an emerging profession, relying on taking portraits (certainly a major staple of the photographer active in the Civil War) and just beginning to see the possibilities of the landscape: “The Photographic Sketch Book represented a new venture in that Gardner, a photographer with a sense of recent trends in camera work and his place within them, wanted to visualize the war and make that visualization central to its telling. The view was the new mode and carried a professional meaning – more institutional, more weighty, more national, more legitimate – as the photographer tried to make a place for his craft” (p. 16). Gardner, as Lee reminds us, joined a legion of journalists and sketch artists, many working for magazines, all bent on reporting on and documenting the visual features of the war.

Lee’s comparison of the sketch journalists, who could be on the spot quickly recording events, with the photographers, who often, with their heavy equipment, had less range and fewer options. Gardner’s photographs are “descriptions of key sites, they are also about an effort at imaginative recovery and, even more, prodigious attempts to signal an action nowhere present” (p. 26). Gardner, and other photographers of this period, learned to work within the limitations of the technology and even to use these restrictions as partial commentaries on the subject: “Perhaps the photographer’s confrontation with death helped trigger this sensibility, but it is equally the case that it grew out of the restrictions of camera-work in the war theater. For photographs are like corpses insofar as they are representations of past or even lost things . . . and the melancholy they trigger in us is related to out inability to hear or touch or smell anymore; we can only see, very provisionally, the ghostly things within them” (p. 31).

While Lee notes how ignored Gardner’s volume was at the time of its publication, Young, the literary, describes why she believes the volume’s text deserves to be read on its own and why it was intended to be read in this way as well, although it has also been neglected as a document of the Civil War. Also, every photograph and other illustration came surrounded by words: “Illustrated newspapers converted photographs into engravings and surrounded them with words; stereoscope cards covered the reverse side with words; photographic portraits included the name of the studio and the subject, and sometimes more complex texts. . . “ (p. 58). She likens the use of words in Gardner’s book to the literary genre of the sketch featuring the “traits” of “visual partiality, digressive plot, and compositional haste” (think of Washington Irving, for example) (p. 59). Young then carries us through a close reading of the text in Gardner’s photographic book, demonstrating how his language describing the images often reflect the attitudes and biases of his day (or, at the least, comment on them). Some may think that Young is over-reading the text, but in her quest to find “new meanings constructed from words” (p. 94) we also discover new ways of thinking about the images and their depiction of past events.

This volume is the first number in the series Defining Moments in American Photography being published by the University of California Press. Here is the description of the series: “This series investigates key photographers and images in the history of American photography. It reshapes that history with attention to race, gender, and class; brings focused and accessible studies of American photography to a wide audience; places American photography at the center of American visual culture; and brings into dialogue writers from art history, American studies, cultural studies, gender studies, literary studies, and American history.” There are two other volumes published, and the information on the series can be found at Archivists will want to follow these publications and what they offer about our understanding of photography as record.


Post a Comment

<< Home