Professor Martin McLoone offers a review of Professor Sarah Edge‘s Photographic Exhibition: Selective, Subjective: The Historical Photograph as a Trace of History, which has just closed. The exhibition ran in the Riverside Foyer Gallery at the University Of Ulster, Coleraine from December 7th – January 12th 2013.
In his account of the making of Robert Flaherty’s film ‘Man of Aran’ in 1932-4, Pat Mullen describes one of the difficulties Flaherty encountered in finding local subjects to co-operate with him. Apparently the islanders feared the camera and before they would agree to being photographed they sought assurances from the local parish priest that they would not lose their souls along with their likenesses. In a completely different context from the early days of photography, Arthur Munby records in his diary for 1862 encountering a similar fear – this time among the urban working class women in London. Munby, as Sarah Edge’s research confirms, bought, rather than commissioned, photographs of these women from various photographers at the time and in his diary he records that one of these photographers told him of the difficulties he had in getting the women to pose for him. ‘…they thinks it’s witchcraft or somethink o’ that’, he is reported as saying and by way of explanation adding, ‘Many of them are Irish, you see.’ These two incidents, separated by a period of seventy years, raise a number of interesting points about the art and practice of photography. First, there is clearly a problem here with photography’s capacity to capture and record reality – its documentary function – and the implication that it somehow delves deeper or reconstructs, reconconfigures or otherwise changes the object of its look – its representational function. This has been and continues to be a central concern for photographic studies. As Sarah Edge says here, the photograph turns the subject into an object and perhaps there is an instinctive understanding of this in the responses of subjects to their first experience of the camera. Indeed, it is this dynamic that renders photography’s documentary purpose extremely problematic. ‘The camera never lies’ runs the old adage but it is clear that from the moment of selection of subject and by the application of various techniques – composition, framing, lighting, setting and other extraneous factors the camera manipulates and constructs so completely that it might rightly be deemed the most mendacious machine ever invented. Even the evidence of the archive itself is suspect. Someone chooses what is kept and what is discarded and there is evidence that Munby’s own archive is a carefully selected set of images that tell his story rather than history. There is a supplementary question raised here also about photography’s role in nineteenth century anthropology and its status as historical record. Flaherty and his more accomplished photographer wife, Francis, approached their subjects through the filter of the nineteenth century. ‘I’m an explorer first’, Flaherty once said, ‘and only incidentally a filmmaker’. Like Munby before him, Flaherty was a flaneur of the primitive, wandering like an explorer from one remote location and society to the next, capturing endangered and unusual peoples on film before they are washed away by the filthy tide of modernity. Here, the Irish dimension is interesting.
In both these accounts there is an implication that the Irish represented a particular form of pre-modern primitivism and the camera, still or moving, represented the high point of modern sophistication in contrast. However, we might just as easily say that the photographs and films that resulted from the encounter between modernity and the primitive tells us more about the photographers and their ideological perspectives than it does about their subjects.
In the case of Munby, the subject of Sarah Edge’s study, there is a complex weave of ideological assumptions. First, of course, there is the problematic of race, ethnic identity or nationality. This is signalled in passing by the photographer’s remark about Irish girls but is central to the whole world of nineteenth century images of Ireland and the Irish, especially as these have developed from woodcuts and illustrations through political cartoons and on to photography itself. One of the ironies of the situation is that because of patent and copyright issues, photography actually developed more rapidly in Ireland than it did in Britain and, as Sarah Edge has pointed out elsewhere , because of the political tensions in late nineteenth century Ireland, photography developed a more clearly political and surveillance role there earlier than it did elsewhere. The surveillance potential of photography is already implicit in the voyeuristic tendencies clearly implied in the practice of the flaneur and the ethnographer and this aspect of the history of photography is central to the Sarah Edge’s work.
Munby’s photographs raise a second important ideological question. He photographed and bought photographs of mainly working-class women. In fact there is a double category at work here and Munby’s photographs raise very interesting questions about the construction in the nineteenth century of both gender and class identities. Sarah Edge is interested in this in terms of Munby himself – the voyeur and the dispassionate observer. Munby, she argues, represents a moment and a practice in the wider Victorian project of defining and circumscribing femininity and marking it off from Victorian masculinity. Central to this project is the question of power. Munby represents dominant patriarchal and bourgeois power and the photographs he collected tell us as much about this power relationship as they do about the life situation of the working-class women he collected. Munby removed himself from the material world of these women – the hardships and the poverty that they endured – and sought a kind of safety in the dispassionate security of the patriarchal gaze provided by the photographic image.
Sarah Edge is interested in the theory and practice of photography and her research findings are presented as both theoretical and practical or, to be more precise, through a theoretically informed practice. In her own practice she returns to the location of many of Munby’s original photographs. Her own contemporary photographs attempt to locate the materiality of these women – to find traces of the lived experience that Munby was anxious to contain. In her analysis, she argues that it is impossible to divorce the meaning of the photograph from the practice in its historical setting. She has devised a photographic practice that itself attempts to explore the deeper meanings and broader constructions of Munby’s photographs. In a metaphorical sense, she has set out to rediscover the stolen soul in the frozen likenesses of Munby’s women. The exhibition of images presented here attempt to reinsert these ghostly traces while at the same time asking pertinent questions about historical memory and the truth of the photograph.
Sarah Edge offers some thoughts on a round table discussion at Birmingham City University set up by a wider AHRC Networking Grant to investigate ‘The Application of Non-Representational Theories to the Digitally Produced and Circulated Image’, (27th December 2012)
I like the idea of a blog it allows for a kind of quick informal response to events where ideas, ruminations, questions can be put out there without the worry of, ‘Oh no, I might make a mistake’. So here I go.
I was recently an invited guest to the Centre for Fine Art Research (CFAR) Birmingham City University at what was billed as, ‘An international roundtable event responding to the simple question ‘What is a Photograph?’ The day was chaired by Prof. Johnny Golding and advertised as an ‘intense, curious and experimental one day micro-laboratory which will include a series of presentations from invited speakers on the networked photograph.’ It lived up to its label.
All participants were requested to reflect on their own response to the question ‘what is a photograph?’ – thinking it through in relation to the recent work of Francoise Laurelle’s Non-Photography (2011), Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking with Whitehead (2012) and Sloterdijk’s Bubbles/Spheres (2011). (This was ‘homework’, I am afraid, that I did not manage to do but have certainly decided to now read Laurelle’s Non Photography)
What is a Photograph? Was organised as part of a wider AHRC Networking Grant investigating ‘The Application of Non-Representational Theories to the Digitally Produced and Circulated Image.’ The project aims to establish and facilitate a trans-disciplinary academic network in order to produce new insights into and understandings of the relationship between the photographic image and the Web.
So what is a photograph? A good question. But is it one with an obvious answer? No, it seems not. It is a strange question and one which I find myself coming at from a slightly different position which is to ask is it a useful question? What do I mean by that? Well, what motivates the asking? Why are we asking ‘what is a photograph’?
I do not think we ever quite got around to addressing that at the roundtable. The combination of fine art practitioners (photographers), a curator and those who ‘study the subject’, primarily from a philosophical tradition, was unusual, and as the day progressed the participants shifted the question away from ‘what is a photograph?’ to ‘what can a photography do?’ … ummm, a shift which was getting closer to my interests. If we can work out what it can do, then could we also consider its effects? This all brings me back to my cultural studies tradition. But I have stumbled at the first hurdle with this question. How can I find out what it does if I do not know what it is?
A philosophical question perhaps … but I am not a philosopher. There’s plenty here in the room with me and I am fascinated to hear what they have to say. As a cultural studies person (and sometimes an artist, when I get time) I feel slightly like an outsider (this is an interdisciplinary event) but I know there is something important being considered here and if I can order my thoughts… theirs and mine, and think, I am pretty sure I will have something that is useful to me.
What is a photograph? The answer must surely lie in determining what are the photograph’s defining characteristics; what aspect of this form of visual communication marks it as unique from every other?
Of course it shares things; perspective, an imitation of perception, flatness, and all its cultural codes. But we can return to them once we can define its differences. Because by defining its differences maybe we can understand how this difference acts upon its sameness to other forms of communication.
So what is it that we see ‘persisting’ in the networked photography? It is, I would suggest, its stillness and its ability to capture information about the world through a physical link… a ‘trace’. Whether that trace was recorded chemically or electronically for me is not the issue. I do not care if the ‘latent image’ is there caught in the camera waiting to emerge through the printing process or caught in the space between me and the electronic sensor before it materialises on the screen for me to see. It is only a matter of time, I think.
The debate at the roundtable made me think about such terms and the need for my own clarity.
Indexicality is not just a matter of being linked to the object the sign represents (e.g. a piece of Christ’s cross can take on indexicality through an added narrative. When I tell you that this wood is a piece of the cross, it is only through this meta-discourse that the wood becomes linked with Christ). In photography it is also about a physical link to that which it represents. For example, the fingerprint is a physical trace of me. It cannot exist without me pressing my inked finger down on the paper, while the footprint of the bird in the sand can only be made by the physical presence of the wading bird. In its purist form no additional narrative is required to link the sign with the referent. If I was an ornithologist I would be able to read the trace of the bird and identify the species it belongs to but probably not the actual bird. If I were a criminologist I would have the training and knowledge to read the fingerprint for the exact human being it came from. (Indeed, they use to use a print from the ears).
Since returning from the day these thoughts have stayed with me and I have found myself pondering on them and their significance to the persistence of photography (as a still, indexically traced image on the web). A photograph is a still image linked to the physical world. A photographic trace of my mother was made by my mother when the instrument of the camera recorded (traced) her difference to every other human being on this planet. It is this that I see when I look at it. While I have leant to read the photograph I do not need to learn to read the trace of my mother, her uniqueness is there. Of course for all other viewers I must offer a narrative to locate its personal indexical quality for me but nonetheless what they can all see is the physical trace of another human. This is what dictates its persistence in the digital age. (The pre-Christmas rush for online published family albums bears testament to that).
Thus the photograph is not like the wood of Christ’s cross. It is not dependent on an external narrative or discourses to link it to the physical world. The automatic process of the photographic image does that itself. The uncanny of indexicality is in every photograph we view but none more so than the photograph of the human.
Why does it matter to me? It is because I am someone who studies photography in its ordinary everyday usage, part of networked culture in which the persistence of these two defining traits – a trace and stillness (take a look at Facebook) – ‘speaks’, I believe, to a social, cultural and ‘human’ need that can only be fulfilled by the photograph. (Why was it invented in the first place?). If it didn’t it would have mutated, away from index and stillness into something else …perhaps a moving portrait of the kind familiar to fans of the Harry Potter films … long ago.
Once defined we can add these to all the other shared traits it carries and wonder how these act together thus asking what does the photograph do? Now the question meets my concerns, as a cultural studies feminist activist. I am not interested in what a photograph is in an abstract sense but for a purpose what does it do? How does it do it? And to what effect? Basically is this theoretical examination useful to me in understanding unequal relationships of power…a surprisingly old fashioned position nowadays… but making a comeback. For me this is the place where photographic artistic practice meets theory.
Artistic photographic practices have, of course, always defined themselves against the normal everyday uses of photography. This is nothing to do with photography itself but rather in order to signify its difference. Nonetheless there have always been artistic photographers who have sought to engage with the question of what is a photograph and what does it do? These photographers do what critical art should do; they test the boundaries of their subject. They expose, undermine, make visible or mobilise the inner workings of the photograph. This was the case made by the photographers who participated in the roundtable event whose creative work opened up the question ‘what is a photograph?’ and the fascinating, engaging artists who reveal there is a connection to be made here between these dense detached academic critiques and these experimental emotive and challenging photographic practices.
But again I find myself slightly uneasy I have clearly needed a definition of differences to mark out what is exclusive to the photograph. Artistic practices often work with the conventions of photography as its subject matter and to me it was no surprise how many times during the event, a film whose visual code reveals the patriarchal voyeurism of the camera – Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom – was referenced to say something about photograph. Many artistic works employ aspects of the moving image – animation, sound, etc – to say something about photography, to perhaps even answer the question ‘what is a photograph?’ They borrow from the visual codes and cultural conventions of the photograph but, under my definition, they are no longer a photograph. Does this matter? I think not. But there existence should also not be used to undermine what we see around us, which is the very persistence of still photography in everyday networked culture.
To sum up then the CFAR roudtable was fascinating, engaging and a pleasure to attend as the beginnings of an interdisciplinary exchange about what is a photograph? I enjoyed myself, as all could see, I think.
I have never quite mastered the external posture of the serious male academic and find myself overflowing with excitement, enthusiasm, things to say, thoughts to quick to hold in my mind that need to burst out. I think it might be a feminine thing.
As an aside before I joined everyone at the event, I went to see an amazing painting housed in Birmingham City Art Gallery. I am currently researching; Work (1852–1865) by Ford Madox Brown. I am writing about photography and signs of Irishness, in particular a certain style of beard – the ‘Fenian beard’ – ‘traced’ in Irish prison photographs in the 1860s. In Ford Madox Brown’s painting it is in all its glory caught in the painting of the Irish navvy… a comment on the continuity of our cultural concerns across different mediums perhaps.
Professor Sarah Edge reflects upon her photographic exhibition: Selective, Subjective: The Historical Photograph as a Trace of History. It runs at the Riverside Foyer Gallery from December 7th to January 12th 2013 at the University Of Ulster, Coleraine.
The Selective, Subjective photographic exhibition is a creative and visual examination of a photographic archive compiled by Arthur J Munby in the mid Victorian period. Held in Trinity College Cambridge the archive houses his diaries and notebooks and sketches and most importantly for this photographic installation over 100 very early photographs of working-class women. The exhibition, through experimental uses of photography that employ digital techniques, aims to pose questions on whose visual history is being represented in this historical photographic archive. Visually querying the different types of gaze that can be traced in these photographs; Munby’s original process of construction and selection, what was he looking for? The working class woman’s personal gaze of self-representation, how did they want to be seen? Finally our gaze as the contemporary viewer what do we see?
In this installation the instability or plurality of meanings held in any historical photograph is investigated as well as the myth of the ability of the photograph to ‘capture’ truth. Sarah Edge revisits the original location that the photographs were taken over a hundred years ago to re-photograph combining the two into an evocative ghostly trace. In this period Balzac famously expressed his fear over the new invention of photography with the analogy that the photograph stole a thin layer of skin with each taking. Some of the women caught in these earliest urban photographs express this same fear of the new photographic likeness – ‘that like magic could steal their soul’. This installation offers a twist to this apparently naive fear of the photograph by revealing how photography did in many ways ‘steal the soul’ by shifting the person or subject into an object.
Thanks to the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge for permission to reproduce photographs from the photographic collection of Arthur J Munby.
Thanks the British Library for their permission to reproduce from Stanford’s map of London ref11.c.5 sheet 10 and 11.
Thanks to Nigel McDowell for all his technical help with the photographs.
An online Net Art piece funded by the AHRC connected to this exhibition can be accessed by clicking here