- Photographs, Museums, Collections: Between Art and Information by Elizabeth Edwards, Christopher Morton
By Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Morton. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015. Pp. 304. €34.95.
Elizabeth Edwards and Christopher Morton’s Photographs, Museums, Collections: Between Art and Information represents the first collective effort by curators and historians to understand the genesis and development of public photographic collections in Europe, North America, Africa, and Oceania. Inspired by a 2013 symposium of a similar title, the volume includes fourteen essays that examine the relationships among photographers, photographic subjects, collectors, curators, and institutions, and demonstrate the plurality of meanings photographs embody within these networks.
The workshop and volume were conceived in response to the historical and historiographical neglect of photographic collections in museums. For multiple reasons, including their ambiguous status between art and information, as well as their reproducibility, photographs have been marginalized within institutions that value originality and rigid categorization. Ambiguously positioned within the hierarchy of museum collections, photographs have often been instrumentalized to understand and present the history and significance of other classes of objects. It is in this ancillary capacity that they appear in historical studies of collections as well.
Photographs are at the center of the narratives in Photographs, Museums, Collections: Between Art and Information. The essayists approach their diverse photographic collections with a shared methodological commitment to the study of material culture, though some more explicitly than others. Framing the photograph as a “knowledge-object,” the contributors look for significance at the intersection of image and materiality (p. 7). Historians of technology have long maintained an interest in material culture. Applied to the history of photography, this interest has generated a corpus of work on cameras, optics, and chemical and electrical processes. These essays serve as a reminder that the products of these technologies and techniques have broad historical value, and that the process of collecting adds to their value.
The volume is organized into three thematic sections beginning with “Becoming Collections,” which features biographies of four photographic collections. The process of accession proves transformative in each of these case studies. Presenting an opportunity to legitimize the author, subject, or collector, accession can also alter the function of the collection as envisioned by the same parties. The second section, “Scientific Documents,” addresses photographic practices within the disciplines of ethnography, biology, and botany. Portraiture proves both a subject of and aid to scientific inquiry. Cartes de visite, for example, were alternately employed as ethnographic [End Page 170] evidence, solicited as visual representations of epistolary professional networks, and displayed as a means of asserting scientific expertise. “Shaped in History” explores the role of photographs in telling stories of revolution and resistance in museum spaces. The authors suggest that the subject and presentation of photographs can support or challenge political regimes and subvert oppressive ideologies. The volume concludes with a discussion of the practical challenges of preserving and curating photographic collections, including objects such as albums and negatives, and using digital tools and crowdsourcing to bring the collections to life for visitors.
The essays across the sections are in conversation with one another and could have been productively organized around a variety of themes, including the importance of photography in creating and maintaining social networks. Duncan Shields, Casey Riley, Eleni Papavasileiou, Geoffrey Belknap, and Sophie Defrance highlight the ways in which professional connections were inscribed on and through photographs.
Together the essays present a strong argument for the preservation and continued collection of physical photographic archives at a time when museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions are engaged in a debate over the appropriate role of digitization in collections stewardship. The essays will be of greatest interest to those historians who are stewards or users of photographic collections, though many more historians could benefit from employing photographs as knowledge-objects, rather than illustrations, in their research.
Emily A. Margolis is a doctoral candidate in the department of History of Science and Technology at Johns Hopkins University and the 2017–18 AHA/NASA Fellow in Aerospace History. Her dissertation explores how NASA centers became sites for family vacations in the cold war.