Centre for Media Research





Photographic History Research and Practice: Selective, Subjective: The Historical Photograph as a Trace of History

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. 

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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.

 

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(1) Comment

Richard Ekins
4 years ago · Reply

Martine McLoone’s review raises many fascinating issues. I was particularly touched by his comments:

‘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.’

‘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.’

Let us not forget that Munby secretly married a maidservant and acted out all manner of master/servant shenanigans with her, many of which were written about and photographed.

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