Photo Archives in the History of Art History: Investigating the Collection in the History of Art Department

By Deborah Schultz

If, like me, you work on twentieth century and contemporary art, you may very well never have used the photo archives. When I wrote my DPhil at Oxford, on the Conceptual Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, the room full of boxes of photographs was an un-entered zone for me. Why should I go in there? I thought to myself. I’m modern. What could be in there for me? However, having taught courses on Historiography and the History of Photography for a number of years, I have become fascinated by the methods of art history. I started to wonder if those mysterious boxes were still there and I wanted to take a close look to see what was, in fact, inside them. Fortunately the whole collection was intact. Perhaps my fascination also has something to do with my enjoyment of pulling things off of shelves, rather than looking at screens, and a wish to continue doing so. While recognising that my interest is probably partly aesthetic, I sensed that this would be a rich area to explore. Although, from the outside, box after box looks more or less the same, each contains an intriguing assortment of material.

 

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My project begins by focusing on the Photo Archives, comprising about 600 boxes of reproductions of works of art and architecture. I am interested in the scope of the collection, and how it was used as a core teaching and research resource. To this end I am spending some time simply opening up boxes and looking at what is inside them. I am interested in the range of contents and where they have come from: Were they purchased from photographic agencies, received as part of an exchange with another institution, cut out of auction house catalogues, or taken by private individuals? Was there a particular method behind the selection of contents? Why were certain items collected and not others? To some extent the defining structure of the archive is unclear. Certainly it was set up to provide a visual record of what something looked like at a given time. But were certain criteria followed in its establishment and development? Or did it grow organically, depending on the interests of faculty and researchers in relation to what was available? Quantity is always useful in a photo archive, enabling comparison between works at different times, as we have all learnt from Heinrich Wölfflin. Whereas comparison between two slides projected on a wall or as part of a PowerPoint is valuable, comparison between a larger number of images provides a much broader context to any given work. It also limits the risk of reducing the comparison to clear cut contrasts. In this sense, photo archive methods are more akin to the open networking structures enabled by digital technology, in contrast to those generated by dual slide projectors. The familiar method of comparing and contrasting x and y, may evolve by combining photo archive methods with digital technology into looking at x in relation to y and z as well as a, b, c and so on. Thus, renewed consideration of photo archive methods, combined with new technology may help to overcome the confines of binary oppositions and open up more fluid forms of comparison.

 

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One of the most fascinating items in the photo archive is the logbook which records when items were purchased or donated and from where. The logbook begins in 1969 with 36,207 photographs already in the collection. It ends, perhaps surprisingly late, in 1998, with 109,005 items recorded. The highest number of acquisitions came in 1972-3 when 5,841 photographs were added, through purchases, exchanges and donations. The majority came from Western Europe and North America, with occasional additions from Central/Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and Australia. Somewhat frustratingly, a column was only added in 1988 to list the subject of the photographs. So the logbook tells us more about where items came from and when they arrived than what they are of. A column for cost was added in April 1970. At first it was ‘approximate’ cost and not every item had a known cost attached to it. The costs were not added up and at first were only listed in the currencies in which they were bought before sterling exchange values were added. The logbook illustrates when Britain went decimal as until March 1971 the amounts were given in pre-decimal currency, and thereafter in decimal currency. As a handwritten document, the logbook is also indicative of changing staff in the department, evidenced by a wide variety of handwriting. Thus the logbook is a valuable document in itself, a mutable and inconsistent document that demonstrates regular changes in the photo archive in relation to the art historical context in which it evolved.

 

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There is a temptation to explore the logbook on an increasingly micro level: Who ordered these photographs? For what purpose? Teaching or research? At the same time, the macro level always frames the contents, setting them in their wider art historical perspective. Recent blogs on this site have noted the links between photography and art history as an academic discipline. With both developing in the second half of the nineteenth century, these links are extensive and complex. As André Malraux wrote in Le museé imaginaire, ever since the mid-nineteenth century ‘art history has been the history of that which can be photographed’. The photograph confirms the existence of something and makes it a potential object of study in an age of mechanical reproduction. Virtual accessibility, through a reproduction, has amplified the value of many works of art. Items that are made widely available and reproduced on, for example, book covers, tend to increase in significance. The viewer assumes, this must be important if it is reproduced on the cover of a book. The photo archives are particularly interesting in both reconfirming established figures in traditional art history (the largest number of boxes are of works by Michelangelo) while, at the same time, providing evidence of lesser known artists, whose names are not as familiar in the public domain. Many photographs originate from private collections and provide evidence of works that are not reproduced elsewhere. While the contents of the photo archives confirm more canons than they challenge, they provide evidence of the overlooked and undervalued too.

 

Some of the most significant research in this area has been led by Dr Costanza Caraffa of the Photothek at the Kunsthistorishes Institut, Florence which launched an ongoing initiative on ‘Photo Archives’ in 2009, resulting in an ongoing series of conferences and publications. My project draws on this valuable material to set the case study in Oxford in relation to comparable photo archives in Florence (at the KHI as well as the Villa I Tatti), the Courtauld Institute (London), the Frick Collection (New York) the Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles), and elsewhere.

 

Deborah Schultz is a Senior Lecturer in Art History at Regent’s University London and an Academic Visitor in the History of Art Department, University of Oxford.

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