Photo Archives and the Idea of Nation is an international and interdisciplinary collection of 17 essays. The book emerged from a pair of conferences in 2011 in New York and Florence that scrutinized “photo archives as containers of national narratives and photographs as purveyors of national ‘truths.’”1 Each essay is a national case study from Europe, North America, Africa, or Asia, ranging temporally from the mid-19th century – when nation-states around the world emerged, photography materialized, and modern archival science appeared – through to and including the “dematerializing” and “deterritorializing” digital and virtual archives of the decolonizing and globalizing early 21st century. This volume is a successor to Photo Archives and the Photographic Memory of Art History, a collection of essays from a set of conferences in 2009 that examined photographs through the lens of art historical practices in which the photograph itself disappears in favour of the visual content of the image.2 The editors are an interdisciplinary team whose complementary expertise shapes and enhances the intellectual ambitions of the new book: Caraffa heads the Phototek [Photo Library] at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut; Serena is a photography historian on faculty at the University of Florence.
The editors argue that “it is here, in the photographic archive, that the critical mass of photographic documents able to furnish a variety of representations and interpretations has been accumulated; in this way it functions strategically as a device able to influence cultural orientations” (p. 9). They point to sedimentary layers of photographs and meanings that accumulate over decades while geopolitical territories change. These layers attest to the temporality of “truth” in the verisimilar photographic image, the ever-increasing, unprecedented quantities of photographic imagery, and the impact and opportunities of new forms of spontaneous or transitory archives made possible by digital technology. In short, “the establishment (sometimes the institutionalization) of photographic archives, their evolution and transformation, and their neglect or their rediscovery, in relation to the ways in which they are exploited for nationalistic purposes, or for purposes of creating [End Page 157] national identity or collective memory,” is the issue driving the collection (p. 9–10). Instrumental in the shift in emphasis are conference interlocutors Joan M. Schwartz and Elizabeth Edwards, whose essays bookend the collection. These scholars, who arrive at the study of photographs and archives from the perspectives of geography and anthropology respectively, argue for understanding and scrutinizing the photograph as a discrete physical object in itself, with specific social and archival histories of circulation, function, and meaning.
Schwartz opens the collection and heralds its parameters of inquiry with a question: How, when the Dominion of Canada was founded in 1867, did a sparse population from disparate British colonies scattered across the northern half of the continent come to imagine their new nation? She explores the intersection of photographs, photo archives, and imagining nationhood, finding “fertile empirical ground” in Canada that enables an inquiry of such breadth. “Canada’s transformation from outpost of empire to transcontinental nation was not simply a matter of parliamentary reform and railways building” (p. 19). Schwartz argues that photographs “played an active and important role in that transformation” (p. 19). Photographic archives, as both “active producers and powerful products” of ideas of nation, along with photographs themselves, create “a visual coherence to generate a sense of belonging to a community and to foster the idea of nation” (p. 20). Along the way, Schwartz argues for methods that include a critical, materially grounded study of “context” in the originating purpose, use, and function of the photograph. Subsequent essays build on the foundation of this central notion. The case studies that follow are thick with context, critical analyses of how the photos have been used, and archives formed or deployed to invent compelling national narratives or persuasive collective memories.
The case studies in the first section, “Photo Archives, Identity, Heritage,” are those of new...