Photo Archives VI: The Place of Photography

By Francesca Issatt, Visual Resources Assistant, History of Art Department


Last month on the 20th and 21st April I was lucky enough to attend the sixth Photo Archives conference. It was hosted by Geraldine Johnson (University of Oxford), Deborah Schultz (Regent’s University London) and Costanza Caraffa (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz—Max-Planck-Institut). The Photo Archives series has previously explored the photographic memory of art history, hidden archives, the idea of nation and the paradigm of objectivity. This iteration focused on the place of photography, a broad concept which was interpreted diversely.

Photo Archives VI was held in Oxford at Christ Church College. The significance of this location, in the heart of Oxford, was not lost. As Geraldine Johnson commented in her opening remarks Oxford plays an important role in the history of photography. Geraldine talked about William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, the first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published, which depicts on its very first plate the Queen’s College in Oxford. Further to this on plate 18 is a photograph of the front entrance to Christ Church itself, known as Tom Tower.

christchurchedit2Christ Church College, from the Visual Resources Centre photo archive, © Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

She continued her example with one of Christ Church’s most famous Fellows, Charles Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll), who some twenty years after Talbot’s publication was photographing Alice Liddell whom he based his Alice in Wonderland novels on. In his own time he was a renowned mathematician but now is most famous for his writing and photographs. Dodgson’s living quarters and homemade photographic studio were only a few doors down from Tom Tower. Therefore as Geraldine clearly put it “we can place photography quite literally in the stony streetscapes and grassy quads of Oxford.”

I think the broad notion of place was best described by the first speaker, Joan Schwartz (Queen’s University, Ontario), who set up a framework for the papers that followed. As she explained, both photographs and archives are places – physical and digital. Photographs can be of place, depicting real places with geographical co-ordinates, or they can be of abstract conceptual places such as home, family, history, war and environment.

Photographs can also be investigated as place and as surrogates for place. As a way to construct and recall place as if the viewer was physically present. Photographs in place, and in particular in archives, is where photographs derive much of their meaning. Such as in an album juxtaposed with other images, organised in a filing cabinet geographically, chronologically or numerically.

Costanza Caraffa, Frederick Bohrer, Joan Schwartz, Katarina Masterova (4)edit© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

I hugely enjoyed the first day and heard some great papers. Speakers covered the topics of archival processes, photographic albums and disciplinary structures, with focus on photographic material from artist’s studios, archaeological excavations and science laboratories to name a few places. To round off the day’s stimulating papers the keynote lecture was given by Geoffrey Batchen (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) who spoke about The Placeless Image.

Geoffrey offered examples of placeless images including digital images, which will never have a physical printed manifestation and will always remain on mobile devices and online sites. He said “Photography has slothed off its dependency on a physical substrate and become nothing but image […] photography has become an immaterial medium – or at least it is different materially to our past photographs”.

edit8© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

This is very much a twenty-first century issue but the placeless image has always existed. Another example was of engravings ‘from photographs’ in the nineteenth century. Which he said “free the image from an otherwise static existence. Unfixing it from any medium specificity and any particular place. The image is passed on through a potentially endless chain of transfers from one substrate to the next.”

Geoffrey also talked about the purification of photographs by institutions. For example galleries suppressing complicated origins, for the ease of having a single author, a single date or a single title. Archives find photographs difficult to deal with due to their spatial and temporal migration. As an institution they are traditionally fixated on the storage, cataloguing and study of static objects. Photographs are a challenge to fix in place.

On both days of the conference site visits were offered to some of the places of photography in Oxford. Delegates had the opportunity to visit the Bodleian Library, the Christ Church library and archive, the Griffith Institute, the Museum of the History of Science and the Middle East Centre Archive. As well as our very own Visual Resources Centre! This proved a very successful and appreciated element of the conference, many delegates tweeted their enthusiasm under the hashtag #PhotoArchivesOxford.

© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

I was co-host with Deborah Schultz for the site visit to the Visual Resources Centre in the History of Art Department. A selection of material was brought out from the photographic archive and glass lantern slides depicting art and architecture. As well as photograph albums with a mix of commercial and amateur photographs inside. Another highlight was the over-sized Adolphe Braun reproductions of the Sistine Chapel, presented in portfolios designed to look like expensive leather bound books. All of which sparked great discussions about art historical photographic archives, their past use as study resources, their materiality and their relevance to scholarship and teaching today.

The second day of the conference saw speakers address production, reproduction and value as well as forms of materialisation. Specific talks looked at, amongst other topics, the place of photography related to the encounter between sitter and camera, the ‘trash to treasure’ rediscovery of anonymous collections, curatorial practice, and digitisation as a cultural form.

edit9© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

To conclude a thought provoking and intellectually thrilling couple of days Elizabeth Edwards (VARI, London/De Montfort University) gave her closing remarks. Elizabeth spoke on the presence of politics that lurked in all the papers but hadn’t been addressed directly. Such as the political acts of how we create value, how we imagine, how we appropriate, disseminate and control. She remarked that “Where we place photographs matters politically. How places are made photographically matters politically.” This also raised questions about photographs out of place.

All of the papers focused on the work of photographs in specifically defined places – the archive, the laboratory, the archaeological excavation. Elizabeth asked what happens when photographs attempt to stray and wander in to other places. What are the patterns of their wandering? As she put it “photographs out of place is the very nature of the reproductive and digital worlds in which we live. Photographs can no longer be contained within places – they no longer have material resonance.”

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the conference and co-hosting a site visit. It was a great chance to share Oxford’s fantastic photographic collections with delegates. The brilliant papers and the discussions that followed them made us think about how photographs both articulate and occupy space and time. Elizabeth Edwards summed up the subject of the conference perfectly when she said “photographs are the endless nomad.”


For more information about the conference please visit the conference page.

Podcasts of some of the conference papers are available to listen to here.

For further information about the Visual Resources Centre and its collections click here.

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