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Editors’ Introduction: Photography and Preservation
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Editors’ Introduction
Photography and Preservation

This is the second number of our special issues on preservation and photography. The previous number approached the relationship between these two disciplines historically, examining the paradigmatic preservation practices of documenting, surveying, and archiving. The texts in this second issue address the subject from a more theoretical perspective, unpacking some key themes and concepts that define the relationships between photography and preservation, such as time, memory, and cultural identity.

Time, memory, and identity are abstract concepts. But preservation is very concrete and material based. One might ask: how do these intellectual claims transcend abstraction to become concrete? How is it that we come to see preserved buildings as compressions or extensions of our experience of time, as supplements to our memory, and as sustenance to our cultural identity? The essays in this issue point to the centrality of photography in this process. Old buildings are not immediately understood to be expressions of all these ideas. The work of preservation is to make these and other ideas manifest in the buildings, to give them expression through the building’s materials. The essays in this issue make clear that preservation work is not limited to direct treatments of the buildings. It also includes indirect treatments through media like photographs, which help construct the narrative frames through which visitors will appreciate and interpret the architecture. Certainly, these narratives can also be articulated abstractly in writing, but photographs transmit them with the added advantage of being visually concrete. Buildings are difficult to grasp even for trained professionals. They are multifaceted, with many exterior surfaces and volumes, and interior spaces, which might be aesthetically discordant and temporally asynchronous. Photographs frame the multiple realities of buildings, cropping out superfluous or unrelated elements, and reduce them to a common narrative or aesthetic thread. If preservation is the organization of attention, then photographs are an essential tool in focusing and aestheticizing that attention. In that sense, photography is one of the most effective preservation treatments, even if it is seldom explored as such.

This notion of photography as a preservation treatment of architecture, that is as a means and product of preservation, runs counter to the idea that photographs are mechanical, and [End Page iii] therefore objective, captures of reality. Sarah Blankenbaker and Erin Besler’s essay maps the conceptual differences between so-called objective/mechanical and subjective/pictorial photographic practices. Their analysis of architectural photography uncovers various operations of erasure, censorship, substitution, and translation at work in both practices, suggesting that they might be more similar than not. They illustrate the heavy mediation that stands between photographs and the built reality we assume them to document. But this illustration is not a denunciation. On the contrary, it is an invitation for preservationists to embrace photography’s mediations and actively take charge of them in a more self-conscious and expressive way.

Jesús Vassallo also critiques the theoretical division of preservation photography into the objective/subjective binary, or truth/beauty as he calls it. Vassallo examines the slow historical development of standards for preservation photography as an attempt to subdue the creative element, for fear that it would be perceived as unscientific. There was good reason to fear this common perception that art had no place in science: Vassallo calls attention to the little- known fact that some of the best- known photographic surveys, such as the 1851 Mission Héliographique, were considered utter failures in their time, precisely because they lacked standards. At the same time, Vassallo shows how much resistance there was to standardization, especially because it was seen to erode the artistic element in preservation photography, and indeed to undermine creativity in preservation work. Striking a careful balance between objectivity and subjectivity became a defining pursuit and thread in the history of preservation photography, which Vassallo traces into the twentieth century.

Preservation’s photographic treatment of architecture produces, as one of its many aesthetic effects, different sorts of value. Counter to the assumption that preservationists discover architecture’s historic value, Mariana Mogilevich demonstrates that they create it, often through photography. She carefully maps out the photographic techniques of architects like Robert Venturi...