History of photography

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.


Crowd-sourcing historic images with HEIR – 5 months on

The Historic Environment Image Resource crowd-sourcing project HEIR went online 5 months ago. This post is a round-up of what we have learnt about the image collections, crowdsourcing, and public engagement since then. It is also a post about why it is important to re-introduce forgotten photographs back into the research resource.


Fig 1 lantern slides


Old teaching slide collections are continuing to be under threat of being de-commissioned. Where lack of space, finances, image decay, copyright issues, and the perceived redundancy of old media forms in the digital age are combined, it has often been too difficult for holders to justify their retention. (See, for example, Krivickas, J. and Meyer, E. ‘Future or fate: the slide collection of the Robert Deshon and Karl J. Schlachter Library for Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning’, where although only 26% of the images were available digitally in ARTstor, the complete lack of source information about the images led to the decommissioning and de-accession of the entire slide library).


Fig 2 discussion and upload HEIRtagger


What has been perceived to be an insurmountable problem by some, HEIR has seen as an opportunity: to challenge perceived wisdom, re-assess redundant technology, and find new ways of re-entering a forgotten resource into public and scholarly debate. Only 5 months into crowd-sourcing, it has already turned out that the old lantern slide photographic collections of the Oxford University Department for the History of Art, the Schools of Archaeology, Geography and Plant Science, the Ashmolean Museum and Harris Manchester College were well worth holding on to long after they became ‘redundant’. 131 taggers have tagged over 600 images and generated over 1000 discussions, many of them containing specialist knowledge, research, or identifying unknown locations of our images. Some have even commented on having seen similar images before and chasing up references. And HEIR has not even been promoted publicly yet.

What is more, scanning and combining the images of different Departments, Divisions, Colleges and Museums on one accessible platform – HEIRdams – has enhanced the cross-divisional and multi-disciplinary research potential of the resource.


Fig 3 page from HEIR database


For departments, the benefits of participating in HEIR are clear: they are able to maximise and capitalise on having this material available in the digital format for the first time. Within the History of Art Department, for example, the immediate benefits of getting involved included exciting re-discoveries, such as some rather lovely hand-coloured slides; interesting exchanges over Twitter; or the inspiration for a piece by one of the students who worked on the project that you can read about on the History of Art and Visual Resources Centre blog.



Once online, departments are rapidly capitalising on the database in their own ways and thinking laterally: the Ashmolean Museum was delighted to project a tailored sequence of slides as part of the Being Human Festival in November 2015, exposing their ‘old’, ‘redundant’ teaching materials to a brand new engaged audience.


Fig 6 Ashmolean exhibition


Beyond Oxford, Royal Holloway University of London has initiated a whole new research project ‘Site seeing: Pompeii in 19th and early 20th-century lantern slides’ based on these re-discovered images.

HEIR’s Mobile re-photography App has added an additional layer of interest and engagement with the images, allowing our students, researchers, and the public to explore the old images in their modern setting.

Others have used the app to explore the relationship between image and photographer – see Dina Akhmadeeva being re-photographed as photographer captured in an historic image of Venice.


Fig 7 AHistc4d5img169c Venice


Fig 8 Dina's rephotography


Perhaps the most surprising element of crowd-sourcing for us have been the discussion pages on HEIRtagger. While we envisaged some comments by the public, we had not anticipated the sheer scale of interest generated by the images, the breadth and depth of knowledge we are being presented with, or the amount of time and research taggers are prepared to spend on the images that engage their particular interest. Our ‘crowd’ are our co-researchers, and the next phase of the project will include thinking about how to bring their wide-ranging research into the database in the most useful and accessible way.


Fig 9 discussion


Finally, we thoroughly enjoyed presenting a paper in collaboration with Victoria Brown from the VRC (Visual Resources Centre) on the project at the DCDC15 conference – the twitter comments after the event suggested that our work has provided food for thought for other institutions with comparable collections.

Old teaching photographic collections offer so many possibilities for research, including the history of disciplines, representations of the past, links between photography and art, and the relationships between art, architecture, tourism and travel. We hope the HEIR project will inspire new research in the History of Art – let us know if you have made use of these rescued images!


HEIR is based at the Institute of Archaeology, Oxford and directed by Dr Sally Crawford and Dr Katharina Ulmschneider. 

William Henry Fox Talbot and the Variety of the Photographic Archive: Exploring Oxford’s Photography Collections

By Dr Mirjam Brusius

Last month’s blog post talked about the strong ties between the discipline of art history and the medium of photography. These ties go back to the very beginnings of photography whose 175th anniversary we celebrated this year. In 1839, photography was announced to the public in France by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787 –1851) and in Britain by the English Victorian scientist William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877). While Daguerre’s images, the Daguerreotype, were unique copies on a silver plate, Talbot’s process, the calotype, was reproducible and became the technique that we used until recently, when the birth of digital photography made analogue photographs almost redundant. Talbot is now primarily remembered as the inventor of photography, but he was an antiquarian and gentleman of science. From the beginning, Talbot’s interests ranged across the natural sciences, classical scholarship and, above all, decipherment of cuneiform script. 1839, when most thought him to have focused on his photographic experiments, was also the year when he published, for example, Hermes—Classical and Antiquarian Researches, an exploration of questions about the antiquities and classical traditions of Greece, Italy, and Egypt. It was also the decade when he produced a wide range of mathematical notebooks.

Coinciding with the 175th anniversary of the public announcement of photography, the Bodleian Library acquired new archival sources on Talbot that will further enable researchers to get the broader picture in the puzzle of the birth of photography. Previous research at the British Library Archive has already given insight into Talbot’s scholarly activities beyond photography, which the Oxford archive will now fruitfully supplement by giving new insight into the influences into Talbot’s education exerted by his family, the Victorian interests in botany, languages, art, travel and history that shaped Talbot’s critical eye, and their roles as patrons of art. The archive will also enable us to learn more about Talbot’s photographic and scholarly activities in a broad and more comprehensive context through images, letters, notebooks and specimens (plates 1-3), but also to those as a Member of Parliament.

Art. 1 450x324_FoxTalbot_Color Bod Library KopieFT_10080_plums-letter2 (2)FT10605+(2)
Plates 1-3: Manuscripts and a photographic specimen from the Bodleian Library’s Talbot archive

Visitors to the archive can also admire some of the first photographs taken of Oxford. Most excitingly, it contains objects, such as glassware and artworks that Talbot photographed for the ground-breaking publication The Pencil of Nature, (1844-46), the first book illustrated with photographs. Here, Talbot explained in six volumes the different uses and purposes photography could have, including the reproduction of art works, such as drawings and sculptures.

Patroclus_talbotAmongst those, were two pictures of a copy of a bust of Patroclus. This photograph (plate 4) evokes a portrait of a human being. Instead of a human sitter, however, it depicts a bust against a dark background. The plain background forces the viewer to focus entirely on the presented object. The body of the bust is presented diagonally within the picture, while the head is turned almost towards us. Because of this perspective the pronounced features of the man’s face are revealed, his slightly open mouth, his open eyes and the fine swing of his eyebrows, the noble nose and his somewhat rough beard.

Plate 4: Bust of Patroclus, from WHF Talbot, Pencil of Nature, plate V, London, 1844-46

hb_1988.1159Another photograph of the bust (plate 5) reveals the front of the athletic chest, whereas the head, which seems to have suddenly turned to the right, appears in profile; the untamed hair that did not catch our eye in the first picture; the interplay of shadows and light agitate the movement of the wavy tresses. It is hard to tell whether the facial expression of the bust indicates surprise, fear or resolve. One reason for the ambiguity is the fact that there are two different images, which allow different interpretations. The vivid and sitter-like character of the bust is in conflict with the ‘visual possibilities’ of the work of art as sculpture – as a form of representation in stone with an extraordinary material surface; qualities that are also revealed in the photograph.

Plate 5: Bust of Patroclus, from WHF Talbot, Pencil of Nature, plate XVII, London, 1844-46

The two photographs allow the spectator to discover these various characteristics of the Greek hero Patroclus without physically walking around it. Talbot went around the sculpture with his camera in order to bring it to life. Talbot’s inclusion of two views of the bust in The Pencil of Nature thus anticipates the comparative use of slides and the reproduction of art to study art history.

Visiting Professor Larry Schaaf’s work and in particular his Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot Project has offered enlightening connections that can be made in respect to Talbot’s photography, e.g. the fact that photography made art mobile: in a letter to Talbot’s friend, the scientist and astronomer John Frederick William Herschel, for example, Talbot mentioned that he intended to make several photographs of the bust: “I enclose a little sketch of the interior of one of the rooms in this house, with a bust of ‘Patroclus’ on a table. There is not light enough for interiors at this season of the year, however I intend to try a few more.” By constantly placing the bust as well as the camera in different positions, Talbot explored the possibilities that the two ‘media’ – sculpture and photography – were able to produce together, a topic that Oxford Professor Geraldine Johnson has published extensively on. Talbot’s images thus reveal that at the very beginning of photography there was no such thing as a clinical or objective point of view.

Talbot’s wish to make his invention applicable to the sciences and the study of the past was grounded in his personal interest. He needed, for example, photographic images to decipher clay tablets bearing cuneiform script in the British Museum, an activity that he devoted most of his life to after 1850. In some scholarly contexts photographs were valued as proxies for what they represented. In others they were criticized as an inadequate proxy, an imperfect copy, less informative or evocative than a drawing or its original.

The aftermath of these multiple functions Talbot had in mind is reflected in the material of many photographic collections, and the rich photographic holdings of the University of Oxford are no exception: Across the university are vast collections deriving, for example, from the ethnological field, archaeological expeditions and travel, the medium’s industrial and scientific applications, images for the press, not to mention the many vernacular genres such as amateur snapshot photography. Only a few of these images became part of the art historical canon. The range of the medium seems wider than any other art form. Often these images seem to have no disciplinary and institutional home, physically and metaphorically. Often they are not even known to exist. Many of them might still be hidden in boxes in attics, cellars and storage rooms of Oxford’s departments and colleges (if readers across the university are aware of such hidden archives we welcome them to get in touch).

It is precisely the versatility of these practices, which should invite photography historians to use new interdisciplinary approaches that take into account the variety of “the photographic archive”. Oxford provides excellent resources for this undertaking: taking the recent acquisition of the Talbot papers as a starting point, a new seminar series co-organized between the Bodleian Library and the Department of Art History in Hilary and Trinity Term 2015 (dates to be announced here next year) will invite students and scholars across the university and beyond to engage with the diversity of the Oxford based collections. We will gain insight from curators, archivists and scholars taking us to the storage areas and discuss new approaches to classical topics beyond the museum wall and the auction house.

In fact, until the late 19th century it was by no means self-evident to everyone that photography could be art at all. And as much as photography as a tool has been part of art historical study since its inception, it has only been a few decades since photography became a self-contained medium within the art historical canon, well-represented in the academic curriculum.

Mirjam Brusius is a Mellon Postdoctoral Researcher in History of Photography at the University of Oxford