Wednesday, 9 July 2014

‘Between the Book and the Lamp’: The nineteenth-century stereoscope as a Phenomenological metonym for lived-experience.

Michel Foucault noted in his ‘Afterword to The Temptation of Saint Anthony’ that naturalists of the sixteenth century such as Aldrovandi were not worse or less credulous observers by modern standards, only that they simply observed things according to a different pattern of order whose priorities took the place of those that observers might consider today. In his essay Foucault states that: “The imaginary now resides between the book and the lamp. The fantastic is no longer a property of the heart nor is it found among the incongruities of nature ... Dreams are no longer summoned with closed eyes, but in reading ... The imaginary ... is a phenomenon of the library.”[1]

This essay is about the experience of perception from a phenomenological point of view and of how the experience of the visual can adapt accordingly. In 1839, Victorian society was changed forever by the announcement of two competing forms of visual art; the calotype, developed by William Henry Fox Talbot in England and the Daguerreotype, by Louis Jaque Mande Daguerre in France. Effectively ‘fixing’ an image taken with the Camera Obscura – a device that had been utilized by draftsmen for centuries – upon paper or polished metal, the resulting image came to be generically termed a Photograph and the Victorian understanding of and about the world in which they inhabited was changed forever.

Through the Calotype and Daguerreotype, photographs offered a seemingly neutral and transparent means by which the Victorians could classify and collect, order and describe the world in which they lived. The development of Photography coincided with a widening middle-class and the height of the ‘grand tour’ in the nineteenth century; the rite of passage taken by most upper-class young men in which were visited ‘Romantic’ countries such as Italy and Egypt. The connection between photography and travel was made so early that in his introductory portfolio of Calotypes ‘The Pencil of Nature’, Fox-Talbot wrote that his idea (for photography) was born from his frustration at his own draughtsman skills while visiting Lake Como. In Paris, many young men put off leaving for their own grand tour in 1839 in anticipation of the French governments disclosure of the Daguerreotype process. The Parisian optician N.M.P. Lerebours equipped and commissioned young men such as Pierre Gustave Joly de Lotbiniere with Daguerreotype outfits specifically in order to capture the grand tour for domestic consumption at home in Paris.

            Five engravings from Joly de Lotbiniere’s Daguerreotype’s were included in Lerebours’ book Excursions Dageurriennes: Vue et Monuments les Plus Remarquables du Globe, published 1841-42 in Paris, Causing a sensation upon printing and instilling in the public a thirst for vicarious armchair travel. The phrase “an engraving from a Daguerreotype” became shorthand for a guarantee of visual authority. As technology developed and photography became the homogenous term, the means by which they were printed and distributed became more widely available and more easily disseminated. Developments in photography on paper meant that multiple copies could be made and “hand-tipped” onto blank or pre-printed pages allowing for entire books to be printed with photographs depicting far-off and exotic places.  In her writing on travel photography, Joan M. Schwartz has dubbed this phenomena ‘Virtual Witnessing’, “whereby distant places could be observed and, thereby, known through the agency of photographs they became a surrogate for travel.”[2]
A novel new form of armchair travel which fully embraces the term ‘Virtual Witnessing’ came in the form of the Stereoscopic View which produced, according to one contemporary account; “an appearance of reality which cheats the senses with its seeming truth.”[3] Developed in 1859, by William England who spent 6 months taking photographic views in the United States and Canada, stereoscopic views consisted of two real albumen photographs that had been taken simultaneously by a camera with two lenses, the same distance apart as a pair of eyes. Printed side by side onto card stock they were placed into a “viewer” which acted as a pair of magnifying glasses and holder, cutting out any peripheral vision and forming a single three-dimensional image, giving one the sense of being ‘inside the photograph’. In July 1860, The Art Journal credited William England’s North American stereoscopic views with bringing people into “closer and safer acquaintance with the New World than all books that have been written on the subject.”[4]

                        This acceptance of visual truth over the written word was quickly becoming the predominate ideal in Western art as the emergence of the photograph and the notion of the camera as a faultless, objective and neutral machine gained precedence. Considered free from the ‘subjective idealization’ of the artist’s hand, the Camera Obscura was finally free to transcribe nature in its most authentic and precise detail, as for centuries the term ‘mechanical’ had long been associated with any labour executed with the hands. However, the subjectivity of the camera operator had not been anticipated, and an interpretation of the world would always be enacted through the camera. In this sense, photography can be thought of as much of a subjective form of art as is painting. Particularly throughout the nineteenth century most travel photography was developed by and for an upper – middle class audience with a Westernised, colonialist, Imperialist narrative in mind. They “offered a means by which to describe, interpret, order and classify, and thereby come to know and comprehend the world.”[5] In his essay ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’, Merleau-Ponty states that Cézanne was known to say that the human face should be painted as if an object in its own right. This phenomenological approach to the execution of artworks by Merleau-Ponty tells us more about Cézanne’s approach toward the “alienation of his humanity” in his painting, than anything else[6]. It becomes clear that Merlau-Ponty reads Cézanne’s interpretation of the world around him from a purely reactionary point of view. Like an insect reacting to its environment like a volcano:

“In Aix a child once hit him as he passed by; after that he could not bear any contact. One day when Cézanne was quite old, Émile Bernard steadied him as he stumbled. Cézanne flew into a rage.”

Cézanne parted ways with the Impressionists, rejecting an interpretation of painting that represented the way in which light attacks the senses. He was far more interested in the interpretation of function through form, which is clearly why Merleau-Ponty celebrates his work so. In his book, ‘Experimental Phenomenology’ Don Ihde speaks of a “Hermeneutic relation”, that of a relation with the world through a machine which can help to  “extend intentionality into the world”[7]. As an example he describes his experience of writing on a board with a piece of chalk. Without the chalk, he states, he would not be able to write on the board, thus the chalk acts as a sort of translator between himself and the board: “There is a partial opacity between the machine and the world and thus the machine is something like a text”

One could also think of a paintbrush in the same sense. Merleau-Ponty certainly relates Cezanne’s own experiences toward his painting in the same way. In this sense, Cezannes painting can be said to be interpretations of his own view of the world as laid out by the translator; his paintbrush. As Ihde states; “instrumentation that embodies perception is not the only instrumental possibility for perception.”[8] In much the same way, the Victorian stereoscope and the experience of viewing through it  could be said to act in the same way and in a more perfect sense than a mere photograph in that it is a translation of a machine’s view of the world. Made palatable by the three-dimensional and all-encompassing effects of the viewer which effectively reforms and translates the world, through a subjective interpretation, for an upper-middle class Victorian audience.

The experience of the stereoscope, with its three-dimensional effect, was an all-encompassing experience that led the viewer to florid verbal descriptions of its effects. A contemporary reading of the effect of the stereoscope by The Times interprets its ability to allow the traveler to “travel… with all the vividness of reality.” The attention paid in this article connecting the sights to experience itself, offer something like a phenomenological reading of the stereoscope’s effects upon the Victorian imagination:

“Stereoscopes, in fact, anticipate travel. The peculiar genius of the Egyptians, as manifested in their rock-hewn temples and colossal monuments, can be appreciated and understood in beautiful little stereoscopes without quitting an arm-chair

… We can study and admire the sacred shrines of the Holy Land, and look with something like dismay on those arid plains which spread in a sea of hot sand round Mounts Horeb and Sinai.”[9]

This attempt at verbally describing the experience of viewing a stereoscope image through a stereoscope, with its all encompassing sensation of “being there”, recalling the “Dasein” of the first phenomenological reduction as set out by Husserl.

In the Phenomenological sense the experience of viewing through the stereoscope resembles what Husserl calls Noesis; the synthesis of various moments of experience into one. Both in the sense that the viewer appears to combine two separate image into one three-dimensional whole and in the sense that the images themselves transcend and synthsise various moments in time; the period of the experience of looking combined the peiod of time in which the image was taken. As a fragmentation and interpretation of experience the stereoscope acts as a form of phenomenological reduction itself, presenting an idealised version of a scene.

As a form of mimesis, the experience of “being there” profoundly affected the experience of the photograph as an objective and accurate representation of lived experience. Like Cézanne and his contemporary painters, the stereoscope fragmented the way in which the world was perceived; transforming experience into a collection of destinations, as a surrogate for travel itself. Packaged up for easy consumption in the comfort of ones armchair the stereotype and travel-photography in general left out other senses such as touch and smell that would affect the experience of taking these trips oneself. Like Cezanne’s paintings, an idealized experience was formed which, much like the interpretation of colour and shade in a painting, was seen through an ideological filter that ‘conveniently’ fell short of depicting the less-salient aspects of foreign-travel in the nineteenth century.  The same Times article goes on to say:

“It is hardly too much praise to say that a good set of stereoscopic views is equal in interest to a good book of travels, with all those additional advantages which the former must derive from giving us their quick, life-like glimpses into costumes, manners, and modes of life of all kinds, and reproducing with minute fidelity the scenery which is always so characteristic of a people.”[10]

The relationship between the interpreted scene of a photograph is made all the more complicated by the indexical relationship between the real and the photograph. Unlike a Cézanne painting, there is an indexical relationship between what is depicted and what is represented in a photograph. The photograph, in its various forms for much of the nineteenth century, had a physical presence in the world. As Geoffrey Batchen put it, “as a footprint is to a foot, so is a photograph to its referent.”[11]
Roland Barthe makes much of photography’s relationship to indexicality in his book Camera Lucida. Getting closer to the metaphysical aspect of photography’s power as a “certificate of presence”, he writes:

“The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here…a sot of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze”[12]

The indexical relationship with the space depicted in a travel stereotype creates an almost Holy aura that transcends time as it transcribes it, stopping it in its tracks. Yet this, for the armchair traveler, also allows them to travel into the past, creating a museum of images in front of their eyes. This recalls Foucault’s Heterotopia which, when “connected with temporal discontinuities”[13] are referred to as Heterochronia.

Not only does the Victorian travel-stereotype show the very moment – or moments – in which it was taken, but by photographing the “rock-hewn temples and colossal monuments” of ancient Egypt, time itself becomes a place. “As temporally specific visual descriptions … their ability to stop the flow of time and thereby preserve appearances, fleeting in reality, both denied and demonstrated change.”[14]

            If, as in Foucault’s description, “Museums and Libraries are Heterotopias in which time never ceases to pile up and perch on its own summit,” then we can think of the Victorian travel-stereotype in much the same way as “… constituting a place of all times that is itself outside time and protected from its erosion.”[15]  In this sense then, the website Stereogranimator[16] acts as a museum also. The website invites viewers to create their own animation using the collection of stereoscopes held by the New York Public Library. The Stereogranimator animates together the two frames of a stereoscope view, cleverly recreating the three-dimensional effect of the stereoscope without the aid of a viewer. In this sense the website acts as a Heterchronia for the travel stereoscope, itself a heterochronia, bringing it into the 21st century and adding another layer of time to our experience of the stereoscope as a form of Heterochronia.

As Don Ihde has argued the use of “instruments” or “machines” to interpret our “world” can have a profound effect on the interpretation of the “world” in question: “The scientist observes dial readings and tracings on photographic and computer-generated plates and, at least for confirmations of his theories, relates to a world through, with, or by instruments.”[17] As I have argued, the stereoscope (and the photographic camera) can be considered similarly as a “machine” or “instrument” which interprets that world for us. Much like Ihde’s piece of chalk or Cézanne’s paintbrush it creates for us a world similar to the Noesis of Husserl. The stereogram viewer and its accompanied experience acts as a form of museum in the Foucauldian sense of Heterochronia. This can be extended further to include the website Stereogranimator acts which itself acts as an extension of the museum into the 21st century.


Batchen, Geoffrey, ‘Ere the Substance Fade’, in Edwards, Elizabeth and Hart (Eds), Photographs, Objects, Histories: On the Materiality of Images, Janice, London: Routledge, 2004, pp.

Barthe, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage, 1993

Cerbone, David R., Understanding Phenomenology. Stocksfield: Acumen, 2006, pp. 28-37
Foucault, Michel, ‘Afterword to The Temptation of Saint Anthony’, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984. Volume Two. James D. Faubion (Eds.). Tr. Robert Hurley. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Allen Lane, Penguin, 1998, pp. 103–22.

Foucault, Michel, Different Spaces, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984. Volume Two. James D. Faubion (Eds.). Tr. Robert Hurley. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Allen Lane, Penguin, 1998, pp. 175-185.

Ihde, Don, Experimental Phenomenology: Multistabilities. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012

Schwartz, Joan M., The Geography Lesson: Photographs and the Construction of Imaginative Geographies, Journal of Historical Geography, 22, 1 (1996), 16-45

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Cézanne's Doubt In Ted Toadvine & Leonard Lawlor (Eds.), The Merleau-Ponty Reader, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007, pp. 69-84.

[1] Foucault, Michel, (1998) ‘Afterword to The Temptation of Saint Anthony’, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984. Volume Two. Edited by James D. Faubion. Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Allen Lane, Penguin, p. 105-6
[2] Schwartz, Joan M., The Geography Lesson: Photographs and the Construction of Imaginative Geographies, Journal of Historical Geography, 22, 1 (1996), p.31
[3] My emphasis. Quoted in Schwartz, Joan M., The Geography Lesson’, p. 20
[4] Quoted in Schwartz, Joan M., The Geography Lesson’, p. 28.
[5] Ibid, p. 31
[6] Merleau-Ponty, p.70
[7] Ihde, Don, Experimental Phenomenology: Multistabilities. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012, p. 102
[8] Ibid, p. 103
[9] The Times (London) 3 May 1860 quoted in Schwartz, p. 29
[10] Ibid.
[11] Batchen, Geoffrey, ‘Ere the Substance Fade’, in Edwards, Elizabeth and Hart (Eds), Photographs, Objects, Histories: On the Materiality of Images, Janice, London: Routledge, 2004, p. 40
[12] Barthe, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage, 1993, p.80, my emphasis.
[13] Foucault, Michel, ‘Different Spaces’, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984. Volume Two. James D. Faubion (Eds.). Tr. Robert Hurley. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Allen Lane, Penguin, 1998, p.182
[14] Schwartz, p. 31
[15] Foucault, ‘Different Spaces’, p.182
[17] Ihde, p. 100

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Archives as...

By the last quarter of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution, famine and starvation had drawn many families away from the country toward industrialized cities such as Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow and London and as a result all were overrun with crime. The application of photography to bureaucratic and surveillance technology within an increasingly centralized government body unsure of how to maintain social order within its own expanding industrialized cities was, by the 1870s an issue of utmost importance. Increasingly, before the creation of a centralized police force many localized forces had made attempts of decreasing the chances of recidivism in the criminal population through the means of a photographic identification system. However without a centralized police force nor a combination of bureaucracy and photography these rarely worked.

The ways and means in which the state identified and surveyed the criminal body in the 19th century was employed using older ideas of physiognomy and phrenology and applying it to photography. These images were dissected, cut up and codified into an order, which could be filed away and brought out for later scrutiny and identification by a series of trained professionals. In other words, the body of the criminal was made an archive.

Eliza Farnham became one of the first to apply photography to the surveillance of others. In 1846, in the United States, her publication, Rationale of Crime, used engravings made from Dageurreotypes made by Mathew Brady. Her theories  incorporated ideas of physiognomy and phrenology, made fashionable by Franz Josef Gall in the early 19th century, which had already set unsurpassable distinctions between lower and upper classes through “zones of deviance and respectability” in interpretations of the shape of the skull. Farnham believed that her studies could have a reformative effect on her subjects, but by dividing them according to race, ethnicity, gender, class and age, and by providing commentary upon their skull shapes, she automatically separates them into the ‘type’ of the surveyed.

In England, during the 1850’s, Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond became one of the first people to apply photography to the surveillance of others, albeit with humanistic intentions. Diamond was the residential superintendent of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum from 1848 to 1858 and it was there that his experiments with photography and mental illness began. Photography was generally believed to be the answer for the need to legitimize the burgeoning pseudo-science of physiognomy championed by Johan Casper Lavater in the eighteenth century.

Utilising Frederick Scott Archer’s wet-colodion process, Diamond set about capturing the female inmates of the Surry County Lunatic Asylum. Diamond was an advocate of visual imagery as therapy for his patients and was generous in his use of photography, allowing for the self-reflection required in order for the patient to view and comment upon their own rehabilitation.

His paper to the Royal Society in 1856, listed three possible applications of his photography to the “mental phenomena of insanity”; A.) as a method of treating the physiognomies  of the mentally ill for study, B.) of treating the mentally ill through the presentation of an accurate self image, and, most importantly here C.) for documenting the faces of patients to facilitate identification for later readmission and treatment.

Adolphe Quetelet believed that statistical data could identify a composite or average man through large aggregates of statistical data. In his 1835 treatise ‘Sur l’homme’, Quetelet relied upon the central conceptual strategy of social statistics in order to seek statistical regularities in birth, death and crime. From Quetelet on, social statisticians become obsessed with anthropometrical researches, focusing both on the skeletal proportions of the body and the volume and configuration of the head.

Francis Galton believed in statistical analysis also but his research was based upon an unwavering belief in the moral degeneracy of the lower classes. Between 1877 and 1896 Galton produced a series of images that would influence eugenics into the 20th century. Galton superimposed photographs of varying ethnic and racial ‘types’ such as Jewish, Irish and African men, women and children on top of each other, creating a composite image. This resultant, blurry image was identified by Galton as the definitive description of each ethnicity and would be used as a basis and an argument for the social betterment through breeding. Here the body was codified and given order according to a predetermined and biased set of instructions. Like the archive, photography is only given a voice by those that wield the power. Sometimes the archive is silent and sometimes it is loud.

Alphonse Bertillon was a file clerk in a Paris prefecture in 1893 when he began to establish what would become known variously as the Bertillon system, Bertillonage and the Signaletic notice. Up to this point no perfect system had yet been developed to decrease recidivism in criminals, partly due to no systematized filing system being agreed apon by differing bureau’s and partly due to the criminals ability to change thir appearance. Desperate to make a name for himself in the burgeoning world of criminal identification and to impress his Anthropometrist father, Bertillon devised a system which combined both anthropometric data and photography into one taxonomic system.

Upon entering the prefecture, the suspect would firstly be measured according to set requirements that Bertillon regarded to be constant in an adult body, then combined with a shorthand verbal description of distinguishing marks.

For photography, Bertillon insisted on the maintenance of a standard focal length, even and consistent lighting and a fixed distance between sitter and camera. He had the sitter photographed in both profile and frontal views for ease of identification by other sitters. He organized grids of the male head using sectional photographs, as the brow largely remains the same throughout life. He did the same with the ear, which like the fingerprint, rarely changes and is unique.

After the measurements and photographs were taken a series of individual cards were made up from which records could be recovered in short order. By organizing his measurements in to subdivisions, Bertillon was able to file 100,000 records into a grid of file drawers, with the smallest subset of any one drawer consisting of only a dozen identification cards. Bertillon identified his system as infallible and from the years 1883 to 1893 identified 4,564 recidivists.

Bertllon sought to reinvent the practice of physiognomy using the cold, hard science of statistical data. The camera is integrated into a larger ensemble which could be described as a sophisticated form of the archive in which the central artifact wielding the most power becomes the filing cabinet itself. Bertillon devised a classification schema for human beings, which, much like the archive itself, ordered, separated and taxonomised individual cases into an aggregated system of identification. Unlike Francis Galton or Eliza Farnham, Bertillon was not influenced by a biased ethnographic interpretation of racial or ethnic types. His form of statistical analysis paved the way for the cold, hard objectivity of 20th century police-work unadorned by class or racial interpretations.

“What we have in this standardized image is more than a picture of a supposed criminal. It is a portrait of the product of the disciplinary method: the body made object; divided and
studied; enclosed in a cellular structure of space whose architecture is the file-index;
made docile and forced to yield up its truth; separated and individuated; subjected and made subject. When accumulated, such images amount to a new representation of society.”
- John Tagg, The Burden of Representation.


Dalston, Lorraine and Gallison, Peter, ‘The Image of Objectivity’, Representations 40 (Fall, 1992), pp. 81-128

Popple, Simon ‘Photography, Crime and Social Control’, Early popular Visual Culture, 3:1 (2005), 95-106.

Pearl, Sharrona ‘Through a Mediated Mirror: The Photographic Physiognomy of Dr Hugh Welch Diamond’, History of Photography, 33:3 (2009), 289-305.

Sekula, Allan, “The Body and the Archive”, October, 39 (Winter, 986), pp.3-64

Tagg, John, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

“If the purpose of writing is to record, how can other objects be textual?”

When I was a child, my parents - being around the age that I am now, and just as inclined toward a similarly neglectful attitude to record keeping – kept all of our family photographs in a large, thick-sided cardboard box. This, in effect, was our family archive, or at least was as close to a family archive as we are still to get. Within it were kept every single photograph that my parents had ever taken since they had been together. As a child this provided no end of fascination to me about the lineage of my own family. From a very young age I did not feel that I belonged in this world and the box of photographs, which was almost as high as me, this archive, was all the proof that I needed of this…

Both of my parents are Scottish but my paternal Grandmother is Italian so, when they first married my parents decamped to Rome where my elder brother was born. There the three of them spent what I can only picture as an edenic few years before they decided to return to grey old Blighty and have me. I have never forgiven them for this. The point of this is that by the time that I was barely eight years old I was already filled with a sense of nostalgia caused by the photographs in the box for periods of time and place that I had either not taken part in or not been cognizant of. Strangely, one of the things that I enjoyed the most was delving into this huge box in the hope of having my mother explain their connection to who I was and how I got to be there. In this delving, my relationship to, and an empathy with, my mother was formed. As Lorraine O’Donnell has stated: “Showing photographs involves storytelling, another narrative act in which the family makes its own history and image.”[1]

This connection between orality and maternity was clearly something that I drew a great deal of comfort and specific personal power from. The connection to a sense of history through photography has remained one of the only constants in my life and as the seemingly tangential threads come together in this form I am reminded of the power of photography as much more than simply that of an image platform. The photograph – as I shall refer to its many convoluted histories – can be at once a Mnemonic device, an anthropological artefact, and a document as well as a picture.

In this essay I will be discussing three largely forgotten forms which photography has taken – the Daguerreotype, the mourning, or post-mortem portrait, and the family album – to describe how a photograph can be a record of the passing of time. This essay is primarily about the many ways in which a photograph can be considered textual, but first and foremost it is also an object which preserves a period of time – and the people within it - forever.

I intend to give a short overview, given the time allowed, of the ways in which a photograph can exist in the world as a socially salient and material object, which, much like the concept of archives, has a life-cycle of its own and carries “meanings [that] are social as well as personal.”[2] Elizabeth Edwards suggests that photographs “demand tactile engagement” and that their materiality is central to the strength of power they have over memory, saying that we need photographs that “can be handled, framed, cut, crumpled, caressed, pinned on a wall, put under a pillow, or wept over”[3]

From the late nineteen seventies and eighties, an increasing amount of scholarly attention has been paid to the ways in which photography has infiltrated the world as a social and cultural device. Informed initially by the ‘material turn’ beginning in anthropology, the subject of photography as social, cultural and mnemonic device is now considered almost commonplace within the socio-anthropological framework. Indeed, within the world of archive and museum studies it is now impossible not to engage with the materiality of an object within ones research.

In the late 1970s and for most of the 1980s, a debate raged within the world of archives (at least in North America) an records management, which centered on the best way to archive non-textual documents within a record-keeping tradition. At this point Canada was a good way ahead in its thinking around the idea of the ‘total archives’ project’ which considered the rather hefty task of documenting all forms of records that made up the whole of history, not just those left behind by its elite.

Terry Cook stated, at the time, that the goal of total archives was “documenting all aspects of human endeavor at every level of society irrespective of medium.”[4] In theory this was all well and good for Canada but it was still rather behind in the actuality of implementing these theories when it came to its record keeping policies. Luciana Duranti identified the need for a series of diplomatic terminology for image-based documents and other media but gave few suggestions for how this could be done[5].

Within a series of articles published in the Journal Archivaria, a number of professionals, most of whom were employed within the Public Archives of Canada, debated as to the best practice for the storage of non-traditional documents as, up to this point, while many ostensibly agreed on the idea of total archives, the issue fell down upon the ways in which these ‘new documents’ would be stored. At this point the Public Archives of Canada departmentalised other forms of media. Were they to be considered as traditional documents and stored alongside them or within separated divisions according to medium?

Terry Cook, who became a sort of de facto leader for those in favor of total integration, complained that the context of an original document was lost once it was placed within the Public Archives of Canada. Forms of media in the sense of “records resulting from modern mass communication techniques”[6] were considered to be of extra importance to the Cook side of the debate, but when it homed in on photography it was considered only ’documentary photographs’ to be of importance as they were considered “unproblematically realistic and transparent carriers of “the past””[7]. Documentary photographs arere ‘evidential’ in nature and could therefore be considered as documents of a sort, but what about other forms of photography such as snapshots and the family albums that often hold them? O’Donnell asks how a records form might reflect its meaning, going on to infer that the social aspect of a photograph inform its meaning. So, where does that leave such photographs as those found in a family album? They might not be considered as documentary evidence, but they still constitute a document; of a life lived, of many lives lived.

In the total archives debate argument, many agreed that photographs possessed evidential over informational value, either as documents belonging in provenance-based fonds or as artistic expressions of their creator. As Elizabeth Edwards and others have pointed out, a photograph, at various periods in the past, has acted as a form of cultural capital that is transferred from person to person like a banknote in a form of social exchange. Duranti, whose articles discuss the interrelationship of physical form and intellectual content, refers to records as tangible physical evidence of a finite activity such as a will or charter[8]. To conclude, Brien Brothman stated in his article some ten years later that the argument largely centered around an ideological fixation on the linguistic form of records, stating that for many historians and archivists “texts have a primary rather than a collateral position in the discipline of history.”[9]

Around the same time, outside of intellectual scholarly reflection, Michael Lesy was making similar pronouncements in his book Time Frames, in which he simply interviewed the owners behind family albums about the lives that they had lived, here the evidentiary and the linguistic were on display within the book. At a time when modes of culture and thought remained heavily departmentalized, Lesy combined ideas based on the history of photography, sociology, and Jungian psychoanalysis to form a multi-disciplinary reading of snapshot photography:

“... I’d claim that the use of photographs as data was of the most remarkable importance for the humanities and social sciences... that it was a thing made to achieve an end like a letter, or to be an end to itself like a poem; that, in either case, it was tangled within a whole culture that was itself pinned within a social structure...”

Prior to this Lesy had published his PHD thesis as the book Wisconsin Death Trip which bore as its images prints made from nineteenth-century glass plate negatives depicting the inhabitants around the area of Black River Falls, Wiconsin between 1865 and the turn of the century. Lesy originally conducted the research that became the book in the mid-seventies when he discovered over five thousand collodian glass plate negatives attributed to one photographer, a Mr. Charles Van Schaik, having literally cracked under their own weight in the attic above the former studio. The heavy glass plates bore the effects of their usage and, on a metaphysical level, one could argue that they bore the psychical as well as the physical imprint of the times in which they were made; the weight and marks of those people existing in one of the coldest, barren parts of the United States in the nineteenth century.

“Many historians have become convinced that there was a major crisis in American life [during this time], some have gone so far as to call it a “psychic crisis” and have attempted to explain its existence or, even more commonly, to use the presumed existence of such a crisis as an explanation, for a wide series of developments in American domestic and international political life”[10]

Prior to the introduction of Wet Plate Colodion by Frederick Scott Archer, the earliest form of photography to reach an international audience was the Dagguerrotype, made famous in France by Louis Jaque Mande Daguerre and his co-inventor Nicephore Niepce and imported to The United States where it was taken up principally along New York, Broadway with a fervour so fierce it earned itself the name: ‘Daguerreotypomanie’. Taking after the silhouette portrait and the physionotrace fashionable in France and England since the late 1700s, it was partly a social necessity that the Daguerreotype came housed within its own casing to keep the delicate surface from damage – behind glass, held in place by pinchbeck foil and enclosed in a gutta-percha hinged case with suede or felt lining. This created a sense of preciousness in the Daguerreotype as both an image and as a physical object. The resultant image, when made well, is astonishingly life-like, due to a combination of the necessarily shiny surface and the razor-sharp focal range of the lenses.

The uniqueness and the image quality of the Daguerreotype gave it an almost holy aura that was intensely personal, moving the press to dub it the ‘mirror with a memory’. The Daguerreotype invited holding, caressing and speaking to, had a physical presence in the world and were unique, so they had a direct indexical relationship with the sitter. As Geoffrey Batchen put it, “as a footprint is to a foot, so is a photograph to its referent.”[11] Roland Barthe makes much of photography’s relationship to its sitter in his book Camera Lucida. Getting closer to the metaphysical aspects of photography’s power as a ‘certificate of presence’, Barthe states:

“The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here…a sot of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze”[12]

This uniqueness of the object and its direct indexicality, created an increased emotional tie to the image at a time when death-rates, particularly in infants were high.  In the United States particularly this created a market for what is now referred to as mourning photography[13]. The commissioning of a mourning portrait could aid in the grief process so that the image of the deceased would help the family members to move on. These early portraits conveyed both a literal and a metaphoric impression that the deceased was still within the family. A contemporary commercial practitioner wrote in his memoir:

“Sometimes, and at the suggestion of the family, I have filled out the emaciated cheeks of dead people with cotton to make them look plump. The eyes are nearly always propped open with pins or mucilage, but when people can afford to engage an artist it is an easy matter to paint the eyes afterward.”[14]

Bazin, in his essay ‘The Ontology of The Photographic Image’, states that once we made representations of the dead so that the image would “help us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death.”[15] In this respect, nineteenth century Americans sought to embalm the dead through photography, maintaining the anthropocentric, utilitarian purpose set forth by their ancestors.

In modern psychoanalytical terms normal grief is typified by an ability to move on from the loss of a loved one and develop a new life for oneself outside of that shared with the deceased. Freud believed that “mourning has a quite specific task to perform: its function is to detach the survivors memories and hopes from the dead”[16] Whereas acute grief is described as an inability to disconnect oneself from the dead ‘Love-Object’. Sometimes a fixation on a fetish object can occur and the mourning photograph could serve as such in enabling a ‘turning away from reality’ toward a ‘hallucinatory wish-psychosis’[17] where the photograph becomes a fetishised replacement for the missing ‘Love-Object’.

The importance of touch as a part of the grief process in Victorian mourning photography is not to be underestimated and the need and ability for the mourner to hold and to touch these photographs is central to their ability to console and this clearly helped in their becoming a part of late-Nineteenth Century consumer life. “External symbols represented the physical memory of the deceased, which was especially important in the ‘searching’ period of grief, following the shock of death’[18]

This “conduit of memory”[19] is evident in certain Daguerreotypes, which show a family in mourning, holding another Daguerreotype of a deceased family member, showing that photography’s physicality stood as a totem of memory to many families. As Geoffrey Batchen writes, when we look at a photograph of a family looking at a photograph, it is to “acknowledge their sustenance of memory: someone may be gone but is certainly not forgotten.” The living want, in other words, “to be remembered as remembering”[20]

This last  point can also be applied just as effectively to family albums, which serve for the modern family a similar job to the nineteenth century mourning photograph. The tactility of the album invites us to sit quietly with a book. The contemplation of the images produces emotions in us but the tactility of turning the pages of a family album or scrapbook invites us to engage with them physically. The action of turning the pages reveals new images and invites us to explain each new image as it comes. “We touch and are touched”[21]

One album in my personal collection is a Victorian collection of snapshots taken around the 1890s through the turn of the century. It is a small book with a purple felt cover and the word ‘memories’ embossed into it. Inside are around 4-6 albumen print photographs per page – all feature the same child from a baby, held in her mother and fathers arms, then images of her as a young girl and eventually a young woman where -  assuming she is married or goes to university, the book finishes. One of the most striking aspects of this album is its commitment to a simple linearity – one person, one life. Most family albums and scrapbooks generally tend to be chaotic affairs, with images placed seemingly at random and over vastly different years. What strikes me about this album is the progressive logic of the images. Finally, one can imagine that upon the girl’s embarking upon her own life, this album would have provided a great deal of comfort for her parent’s whose source of joy and love she must have been for them to produce an album so intense and yet so complete.


From having a physical presence in the world, to being a direct referent of the sitter – the photograph and the collection are documents, recordings and objects in one.
Photographs speak to us, they offer us comfort through memories as we hold them in our hands and we speak to them in return. Lesy relates the mnemonic power of the snapshot to the petit madeleine of Proust’s Rememberence of Things Past in that on the surface they might seem as “banal as a teabiscuit”, but it is in their ability to conjure memories and a nostalgia for the past that their strength lies[22]. In this sense, Snapshots carry with them the weight and cultural power of Communion wafers, Sabbath candles or Eleusinian sheaves, in that they stand for something more powerful than their materiality, yet we don’t think of them as having the same rhetorical power[23]. These images have the ability to make us stop in our tracks as we recall a scene from our past. The various forms that photographs take, as discussed here - the Daguerreotype, the mourning photograph and the photographic album - all reveal what Alfred Gell refers to as “a congealed residue of performance and agency in object form” where we, as actors, hold the object, caress it and speak to it[24]. We engage with others and with our own past through the object. In this sense the photograph has agency as an object and its social use is informed by this agency. The visual experience of the possessor is informed in the way the photograph is used as an (social) object. Its social use is as important as any scroll or charter and should be thought of as equally important to our notion of society in the modern age. They are records of the things that have happened to us and the people we are connected to. In this respect a photograph is as important as a written document, as it displays more information than mere text. Michael Baxendall makes a similar argument for 15th century Italian paintings as social documents, stating that “approached in the proper way... the pictures become documents as valid as any charter or parish roll.”[25] A photograph is an object first, and secondly it is a carrier of information that gives us, based on our cultural understandings, information. Thirdly, and most particularly, it is a mnemonic device, and a time-machine.

“Taken together these approaches allow us to see the family photograph as a product of a specific kind of technology lodged in a certain ideological system and as a form of visual expression mediated through ideological rules of representation…..The meaning of a record is determined by the social and historical aspects of its form. Archivists must accept that the history of each physical form is central to understanding the meaning of records, including private records and records not based on words.”[26]


Alpers, Svetlana, ‘The Museum as a Way of Seeing’, in Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, eds. Washington: Smithsonion Institution Press, 1991, pp.25-41

Batchen, Geoffrey, “Snapshots”, Photographies 1: 2, 121-142

Barthe, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage, 1993

Bazin, Andre, ‘The Ontology of The Photographic Image’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Summer, 1960), pp.4-9

Boon, James, A. “Why Museums Make Me Sad”, in Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, eds. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, Washington: Smithsonion Institution Press, 1991, 255-277

Bown, Nicola, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures: Post-mortem Portrait Photographs of Children’, Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies 14:2, 2009

Brothman, Brien, “Orders of Value: Probing the Theoretical Terms of Archival Practice.”, Archivaria 32 (Summer 1991): 78-100

Cook, Terry and Gordon Dodds; eds, Imagining Archives: Essays and Reflections by Hugh A, Taylor, Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2003

Duranti, Luciana, “Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science”, Archivaria 28 (Summer 1989), pp.7-27

Edwards, Elizabeth and Hart; eds, Photographs, Objects, Histories: On the Materiality of Images, Janice, London: Routledge, 2004

Freud, Sigmund, ‘On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia’, London: Penguin Books, 2005

Jay, Bill, ‘Momento Mori: Photographs of dead babies – the “positive” aspects of a tragic subject’,

Kaplan, Louis, ‘The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer’, Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008

Lesy Michael, ‘Time Frames’, New York: Pantheon Books, 1980

Lesy, Michael, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’, New York: University of New Mexico Press, Random House Inc.,1973

Metz, Christian, ‘Photography and Fetish’, October, Vol. 34 (Autumn, 1985), pp.81-90

Nora, Pierre, “Les Lieux de Memoire”, Representations 26 (Spring 1989), 7-24

O’Donnell, Lorraine, “Towards Total Archives: The Form and Meaning of Photographic Records”, Archivaria 38 (Fall 1994): 105-118

Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984

[1] O’Donnell, Lorraine, “Towards Total Archives: The Form and Meaning of Photographic Records”, Archivaria 38 (Fall 1994): 105-118
[2] Holland quoted in O’Donnell, p.112
[3] Edwards, Elizabeth, Cited in Bown, Nicola, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures…’ p.17
[4] “Archivists document the history of all society, and not just its elite; archivists should acquire all different forms of archival material; they should control the entire life cycle of records; and they should create archival networks” - Terry Cook, quoted in O’Donnell, p.106
[5] Duranti, Luciana, “Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science”, Archivaria 28 (Summer 1989)
[6] O’Donnell, p.107
[7] Ibid, p.107
[8] Duranti, “Diplomatics”
[9] Brothman, Brien, “Orders of Value: Probing the Theoretical Terms of Archival Practice.”, Archivaria 32 (Summer 1991), p.79
[10] Warren I. Susman in his introduction to Michael Lesy’s ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’. Emphasis mine.
[11] Batchen, Geoffrey, ‘Ere the Substance Fade’, in Edwards, Elizabeth and Hart; eds, Photographs, Objects, Histories…, p.40
[12] Barthe, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage, 1993, p.80, my emphasis.
[13] It is also referred to variously as post-mortem portraiture and memorial photography but here I use the term mourning photography.
[14] Cited in Jay, Bill, ‘Momento Mori: Photographs of…’ p. 5
[15] Bazin, Andre, ‘The Ontology of The Photographic Image’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Summer, 1960), p.4
[16] Freud, Sigmund, ‘Totem and Taboo’ in ‘On Murder Mourning and Melancholia’, p. 65
[17] Ibid, p. 212
[18] Jalland, Pat, Cited in Bown, Nicola, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures…’, p. 8
[19] Ibid, p.15
[20] Batchen, Geoffrey, Cited in Flint, Kate, ‘Photographic Memory’, p. 3
[21] Bown, Nicola, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures…’, p. 20
[22] Lesy Michael, ‘Time Frames’, New York, Pantheon Books, 1980, p, 12
[23] Ibid
[24] Gell, Alfred, quoted in EE sound of history, p.31
[25] Baxendall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, p.152. My emphasis.
[26] O’Donnell, Lorraine, “Towards Total Archives: The Form and Meaning of Photographic Records”, Archivaria 38 (Fall 1994), p.113