conference

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, 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.

2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past

By Aidan Mehigan, Current Graduate MSt History of Art and Visual Culture


Caroline van Eck’s 2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past, were announced by a flyer bearing an image of an ornate candelabrum sculpted under the supervision of Giambattista Piranesi and now housed in the Louvre. In just the small part of the object captured by the photo, we can see several tiers of stonework, a lion’s head, acanthus leaves, foliated strigilations, clusters of berries, and much more. Van Eck’s idea of the “excessive object” is immediately clear.

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Close-up of the Louvre Candelabrum, © Hende Bauer

But what made me (and I’m sure many others) particularly excited for these lectures—even though, as the Slade Lectures, they really need no further advertising—is the fact that this object has two siblings in Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum houses two such candelabra, purchased from Piranesi’s workshop in the mid-eighteenth century by Roger Newdigate, who donated them to the University in 1775. They spent a few decades in the Radcliffe Camera before moving to the Greek and Roman sculpture collection at the Ashmolean in 1846.

The first few Slade Lectures this year, then, stayed very close to home, and I think we all relished the opportunity to learn more about a set of objects with which we already had some passing familiarity. Prof. van Eck spent several sessions walking us through the controversial provenance of these complicated works and explored their ancient precedents, initial reception after their supposed “discovery,” and relationship to Piranesi’s other design work and drawings.

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Candelabras in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Despite their imposing form, the Ashmolean candelabra are easy to overlook—because they are placed against a wall, it’s impossible to get a full view of them, and since they flank a doorway, the natural impulse is to keep on moving. The chance to be forced to spend some significant time really looking at them in detail, to see them close read again and again from a variety of angles, was most welcome.

But it soon became apparent that, despite her intensive initial focus on them, the candelabra themselves are not the real focus of Prof. van Eck’s project. Putting on a display of the trademark scholarly versatility and appetite for wide-ranging argumentation that have made her reputation over the years, Prof. van Eck has, in her last few talks, pivoted to an in-depth exploration not of any particular objects but to the birth and intellectual roots of Neoclassicism itself.

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Candelabra in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Patrons, artists, viewers, collectors, and their habits have all had their part to play as Prof. van Eck has probed into the origins of the eighteenth-century impulse to make present an ancient past. Characters as diverse as Wolfgang van Goethe, Caroline van Humboldt, and Aby Warburg have all made appearances. Objects themselves have wielded considerable agency as well, particularly given that, as Prof. van Eck has pointed out, certain works (such as Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix) were perceived by their contemporaries to be truly alive, and were treated as such.

Other topics that have been incorporated into the series include the profusion of animal-related imagery, especially in tableware, and its links to ideas of domestication, totem poles and Rorschach inkblots, the eclectic interiors of the Hôtel de Beauharnais in Paris, and the emergence of the tableau vivant—all of which, Prof. van Eck is careful to repeatedly point out, were conceived, created, and experienced in contexts that predate the museum.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In a conversation with the History of Art Department’s own architectural historian, Dr. Matthew Walker, as part of a reception held at St. Peter’s College on February 21, Prof. van Eck made explicit for the first time just what she’s driving at with this impressively large cast of objects and moments. As one might have suspected, the book project she envisions developing out of this lecture series will not be about the Piranesi candelabra in the Ashmolean or elsewhere, but rather more generally about the formation and emergence of the Empire Style in early nineteenth century France.

The candelabra, fascinating objects though they may be, are, for Prof. van Eck, most useful as summary objects around which to organize both the initial questions she’s interested in asking and the later-emerging concepts her analysis engages with. That they are so striking certainly makes this organizational role a vivid and memorable one, but Prof. van Eck has made clear that her interests here are in higher-order phenomena themselves rather than any particular manifestations thereof.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

The final two lectures of the series elaborated on the ideas previewed at the St. Peter’s reception. The whole audience was especially intrigued by lecture seven, in which Prof. van Eck surveyed a great deal of literature in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral anthropology to familiarize us with the essentially universal human tendency to assign animacy and intentionality to even the most abstract movements and visual stimuli.

Though it took some time to get an audience of art historians and art enthusiasts up to speed on some occasionally quite technical material, this foray into the sciences proved crucial to substantiating Prof. van Eck’s point that the defining feature of the Empire Style is its immersiveness: uncanny animal forms invite us to grasp and control the world of objects. For Prof. van Eck, the Empire Style profoundly entangles humans with things.

Prof. van Eck, at the opening of her final lecture, urged us to consider a line from an essay by Novalis on Goethe: “antiquity is only now coming into being.” In this moment, one of her larger implicit arguments of this series immediately became clear: Piranesi and his fellow antiquarians were not restoring, recovering, or reimagining antiquity—they were creating it. The artistic and intellectual situation in Napoleon’s Paris around 1800 prefigured, she asserts, the material turn currently taking place in the academy—where the obsession is not with ideas or texts but overwhelmingly with things and their thing-ness.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In this final lecture, Prof. van Eck wonderfully demonstrated the need for scholars to bring together anthropological ideas about agency attribution and art historical ideas of style formation. Anthropology, archaeology, and art history all have claims on the object, and it is only by uniting them, Prof. van Eck concluded, that we can begin tackling the problems of materiality.

I can’t be alone when I say that I was wowed by the breadth and depth of Prof. van Eck’s lectures and that I left them unsettled and inspired in equal parts. I’m sure our memories and notes from this term will serve us all well for years to come. We’ll certainly need something to tide us over until the book arrives, and I believe I speak for everyone when I say I am incredibly excited for that day to come.


Professor Caroline van Eck was appointed in October 2016 as Professor of History of Art at the University of Cambridge.

Thinking Colour

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By Lucy Whelan, with co-organiser Anita Paz. Lucy is a current DPhil student at the History of Art Department.


Reading academic calls for papers, I am often reminded of when the children in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree end up at Dame Slap’s school. The longer the children look at the questions written on the board, the more they realise they are impossible. “If there are a hundred pages in a book, how many books would there be on the shelf?” – Three blackbirds sat on a cherry tree. They ate one hundred and twenty-three of the cherries. How many were left?” – and “Why is a blackboard?”

The impossibility of the questions in calls for papers is – usually – not because they are sheer nonsense, of course, but because every question taken seriously opens a hundred more. Following Heidegger, real thinking is not monolithic, or answer-seeking, but playfully opening ourselves up to an encounter with the groundless and unfamiliar. In art history, asking questions of mute objects can sometimes have a similar effect. And there is no subject of interrogation more seemingly silent (or in excess of language) than colour, traditionally mistrusted as irrational, feminine, and carnal.

When my colleague Anita Paz and I were asked to lead a class for Hanneke Grootenboer’s History of Art and Visual Culture MSt option on Image and Thought last year, we wanted to discuss the different thinking tools or mechanisms that images have or use, and colour seemed like one obvious direction. How do images articulate thought, or even, how do they think, through colour? What is colour’s affective power? Can colour be a device for – or even a form of – thinking, for artist or viewer? These were the questions we wanted to explore, only we couldn’t find much written on them. So we decided to bring together those who have explored these questions, to consider the philosophical relations between colour and thinking. We invited Eric Alliez, David Batchelor, Laure Blanc-Benon, Natasha Eaton, Paul Smith, and Liz Watkins – and to our astonishment, all of them said yes.

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The Thinking Colour Symposium poster

It turns out we weren’t alone in wishing to sound out the silence around colour. In addition to our speakers we had over sixty attendees, many travelling here from Europe, the USA, and even Australia. We were also joined by paper respondents both from Oxford – Hanneke Grootenboer and Justin Coombes (Ruskin School of Art) – and from wider afield, and by yet more speakers following a call for papers. And so we found ourselves on the day of the referendum result, 24th June, in the beautiful Danson Room at Trinity College, with voices from various perspectives and various countries, coming together to explore colour.

In our first panel, Natasha Eaton (History of Art, UCL) and Paul Smith (History of Art, Warwick) thought through the phenomenology of colour in different ways, moving us from Wittgenstein’s ‘grammar’ of colour and colour wheels, to negotiations of the colour white in contemporary Indian art. Responses by Justin Coombes (Oxford) and Susanne Komossa (Architecture, Delft Institute of Technology) were both poetic and playful.

The second panel brought together thinkers who have expanded the ways we approach colour. David Batchelor’s paper was radiant, arguing visually and verbally for colour as a fall, a loss of consciousness, a place, while Eric Alliez (History of Art, Kingston University) looked at the painter Daniel Buren’s ‘colour-thinking’. They were responded to by Judith Mottram (Royal College of Art), who raised the question of the radical power of both colour and form, and Hanneke Grootenboer, who addressed the conceptual state of betweenness that colour inhabits, and its philosophical consequences.

In the third panel, Laure Blanc-Benon (University Paris-Sorbonne) and Liz Watkins (University of Leeds) explored the significance of colour in photography and film, as Laure asked how we would understand photography if colour photography had been invented first, and Liz looked at how colour shaped early non-fiction films made of Antarctic explorations. Both papers explored role of colour in media technologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that was furthered by their respondent Regina Lee Blaszczyk (University of Leeds).

A round-table of shorter papers in the late afternoon acted like a kaleidoscope, collecting up our ideas on colour, and holding them up to the light. Tessa Laird from the University of Melbourne looked at contemporary filmmaker’s and the power of colour to evoke a bodily unconscious and overspill various boundaries; Claudia Tobin (Royal Drawing School) looked at chromatic language in Virginia Woolf and what it is to inhabit colour; Sophie Knezic also from the University of Melbourne looked at contemporary artist James Turrell through Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on colour’s intensity; Rey Conquer (University of Oxford) argued how colour helps us to think through poetic processes; and Elodie Ripoll (Universität Koblenz-Landau / EHESS, Paris) described what she designates as three elementary functions of colour words from a literary perspective. What ensued was a rich discussion of colour from various disciplines and perspectives.

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Paul Klee, Signs in Yellow (1937). Public domain via Wikimedia.

My favourite moment from the day, without a doubt, was when an attendee suggested that we had been doing too much thinking colour, and not enough feeling colour. Because it made me realise how actually, by thinking with colour as much as about it, and through some particularly sensitive and sensuous papers, we had managed to do both. Sitting in a dark room overwhelmed by so many phosphorescent slides, we had experienced colour as ‘a kind of bliss’, as Barthes has put it, its jouissance. And, if we follow Heidegger, this too is a kind of thinking. For ‘joyful things, too, and beautiful and mysterious and gracious things give us food for thought’. And by not rejecting these mysterious things as those to be ‘kept out of the wings of thought’, we widen the spectrum of thinking and make it polychromatic.

References

Enid Blyton, The Magic Faraway Tree (London, 1987)

Martin Heidegger, What is called Thinking?, trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York, 1972)


The Thinking Colour Symposium was co-organised by Lucy Whelan and Anita Paz. It was made possible by the AHRC-TORCH graduate fund, and their hosts Trinity College.

Please visit the ‘Past Event’ page for more information and paper abstracts: http://torch.ox.ac.uk/thinking-colour-symposium.