- The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885–1918 by Elizabeth Edwards
Elizabeth Edwards here provides the first comprehensive study of the English photo survey movement. Her aim is not to catalogue the dozens of amateur clubs that produced photo surveys of varying quality and scope during the period, but rather to discover what functions these town and county surveys served in the minds of their participants, and how the survey photographs have been handled by archivists. Combining domestic ethnography with a preservationist impulse, the movement, Edwards argues, reflected entropic anxieties. “Survey photography and its archiving,” she says, did battle against “the frailty of the human memory, against the forces of disordered modernity, and against cultural and material disappearance” at the turn of the century (82). Seeking to produce “truthful” photographs of local parish churches, village landmarks, and folk customs, photographers hoped to produce a “prosthetic memory” of England’s past for the benefit of future generations.
The ancient symbols of authority and invented traditions preserved in English survey photographs could be interpreted as an assertion of patriarchal power just at a time when British women, minorities, and colonial subjects were demanding their share of it. Edwards cautions against such a judgment, pointing out that in their structure and aims, amateur photo clubs were egalitarian, democratic, and asserted local rather than imperial identities. The survey movement did its part to democratize history and, unlike previous photographic societies, encouraged the participation of female members (44). Edwards applies critical theory on the archive (e.g., Michel Foucault, John Tagg, Allan Sekula, and others) to her own meticulous research on seventy-three English surveys. In the process, the photographers emerge as beleaguered and dilettantish rather than as the carriers of cultural hegemony.
While Edwards characterizes the movement as egalitarian and open to men as well as women, she misses the opportunity to expose the gendered narrative [End Page 789] constructed by the movement’s promoters. Writing about photographers’ moral duty to salvage the past, Edwards quotes G. A. T. Middleton from 1898:
In England … we have buildings which tell aloud to him who cares to read of the life of our forefathers, as nothing else can do … There is the stern work of the Norman feudal lord, followed after but a short interval by the elaborate soul-elevating Early Gothic of the days of chivalry… an age of lofty aspiration, true nobility, and manliness, when the armed men lived for honour.(177, my italics)
Edwards describes Middleton’s passage as “Ruskinian,” but I think more could be said about his insistence on the masculine nature of history and nobility here. In a period of militant suffragists, women entering Oxbridge, and their stalking the professions, it was significant that the photo survey movement highlighted the ancient powers and structures of men: baptismal fonts, iron stocks, even whipping posts (mentioned several times in the book). More generally, the book is deeper than it is broad: the author took great pains to analyze seventeen different English surveys in detail, but she relates them neither to trends elsewhere (e.g., Scotland, France, or New England), nor to the commercial surveys in England at the time. For example, Francis Frith, whose postcards of English towns were sold in thousands of shops across the U.K., is never mentioned in the book. This absence is a bit surprising, considering Edwards’s interest in the electronic “afterlife” of her surveys (the Francis Frith Collection has a full Web site on which users may browse the digitized archive). Her tantalizing suggestion of a “photography complex” on p. 27 is restricted to the clubs that conducted surveys and some of the institutions that now house the resulting pictures.
My only other complaint about an otherwise virtuosic volume is the frequency of language that might be difficult for American undergraduates to break down. Discussing photographic meaning in the archive, she says, “photographs, and the specific historical sites for which they stood, were perceived as massing specific historical statements as images in the archive...