Centre for Media Research

Selective, Subjective: The Historical Photograph as a Trace of History

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 



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