- The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885–1918 by Elizabeth Edwards
This is a great book on a great subject by a great author (and, yes, by a great publisher as well, for the amount and quality of the often previously unpublished images in this well-designed and impressive volume is exemplary.) The title of Edwards’s study refers to an eponymous publication of 1916 that summarized both the aspirations and the utopia of a particular grassroots photographic movement: amateur survey photography, a movement that emerged in 1885 and continued till 1918, when the social and political context had changed to such an extent that it was no longer possible to stick to the ideas and the ideals of the desire to document the material and immaterial remains of the past and to hand them on to further generations before their feared imminent disappearance. (Reconstruction and modernization had become the key words, and the nostalgic fascination with the old structures of old English life—the parish, the manor, the trees—were for some time unfashionable.)
Edwards insists on the amateur character of this kind of photography from the very beginning of her study—an insistence contrary to officially commissioned surveys, such as the ones made during the famous U.S. geographical expeditions of the 1860s and 1870s (analyzed by Robin Kelsey in his book Archive Style) or the even more famous Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collections of the 1930s (a lasting landmark for all research in the field), but also contrary to artistically motivated private collections such as the work by Atget or, more recently, the Bechers (today all thoroughly scrutinized in numerous studies). The photographic survey movement in England (other parts of the United Kingdom seem to have been less involved) represents a kind of “archive” or “collection” whose existence has been widely acknowledged but rarely studied in detail. The reasons for this semi-absence are diverse: first of all is the reluctance to take amateur photography seriously (the current interest in vernacular photography is a multifaceted story, which has not tended to disclose all aspects of non-professional picture-making); second the difficulty of unearthing the very material in libraries and other collections where these images have been stored and often forgotten (and one can only praise the author for the fabulous fieldwork that let her discover some 55,000 photographs by more than 1,000 photographers, most of them totally unknown); and third but not last, the great difficulties in reconstructing [End Page 297] what Elizabeth Edwards is most interested in: survey photography as a cultural practice.
A trained anthropologist and world-known specialist in colonial photography, Edwards does not examine these pictures at face value—for instance, from an aesthetic, technical or historical point of view. These perspectives are, of course, present but do not constitute the overall framework of the reading, which has to do with the relationship between photography and history; or, more precisely, the role played by photography (the images as well as the social practices they shape) in the shifting historical consciousness. This relationship is dramatically complex: pictures save the past, for example, but at the same time they cut it off from the lived experience. Simultaneously, pictures also “make” the past—they invent or reshape a past and, even more so, a relationship to the past that was different before them. Moreover, in general, pictures hover between memory (the perpetuation of a direct relationship with the dead) and history (the reification of this relationship in monuments and archives).
Edwards’s approach is based on three major pillars. First, her ideas are based on a very profound but also very subtle and supple use of all the relevant scholarship in the field of photography and history studies. Thus, the author succeeds in integrating in a very elegant and convincing way the major insights of all the great thinkers in the field, including...