Anthropology and Photography 2014 (1)

British Museum, Clore Centre, 29-31 May 2014


Archives, Art and Text

Location Sackler A
Date and Start Time 29 May, 2014 at 11:00


Barbara Knorpp (UCL)  email
Marcel Reyes-Cortez (Goldsmiths)  email
 Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

Many contemporary artists have used the archive as a place for their work by rethinking the institution itself. How can anthropology and neighbouring disciplines engage creatively and critically with photographic collections and the relationship between image and text?

Long Abstract

The archive has recently emerged as a site of contested history, heritage and memory in debates on collections and colonial pasts. Conventionally imagined as a technology for the storage of traces of the past, the archive can alternatively be thought of as a place to revisit and rethink/alter the present. Many contemporary artists have used the archive as a place for their to creative work by rethinking the institution itself, its linearity and our obsession to 'preserve for posterity'. The 'archive' as a repository, treasure, or as a dumping ground for historical objects exposes ideas on anthropological fieldwork that may not be appropriate in contemporary production of knowledge. This panel will look at alternative practices towards archival photographs from anthropology and neighboring disciplines. How can photographic collections be used to create a new body of work by either collage, re-organisation or by producing entire new images while using anthropological collections as a departure and reference point? Can photographic work stand alone as a piece of ethnography? What is the relationship between text and image? Secondly, how can archival images be used creatively in combination with written ethnography and ethnographic description? How have archival images found new meanings and narratives? We are looking for papers that can demonstrate a critical engagement with photographic collections and visual theory in regard to archive while also investigating the relationship between image and text in producing ethnography. We especially encourage scholars from interdisciplinary backgrounds to contribute to this debate.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Photography as markers for navigating memories of the recent past

Author: Grete Dalum-Tilds (University of Northampton) email

Short Abstract

This paper will discuss how the outcome can be increased access and interest and add to the exiting narratives through research where fine art research, community engagement and critical heritage meet to examine alternating narratives in homogeneous spaces in a non-hierarchical structure.

Long Abstract

In the Oral History project Talking New Towns I have found the original collection of photographs commissioned by the Development Corporation withering in a cabinet, emitting a foul vinegar odour. Like the memories of the original 'pioneers' of the new town, the photographs are breaking down, hopefully paving the way for collecting a mosaic of private photographs documenting inhabitants private lives in contrast to the formal posed dream of the perfect community.

While organising the already recorded oral history interviews from the 80 and conducting new interviews, I hope to be able to break down the black and white image of the creation of a model community, while exploring parallel narratives.

The paper will focus on and a discussion of the value of oral history quotes, compared to the visual statement of a photograph. How does the visual and oral narrative work together and how do they contrast each other? Does an artistic approach lend more freedom to a project?

Trained as a fine art photographer with experience in digital publishing in a museum context, I am interested in how to keep collections accessible and in play, in the on going re-negotiation of collection's visual documents and how they can be reread in new formats and contexts.

The basis for the paper will be a discussion based on the writing of Alan Sekula, Okwui Enwezor and admiring the research method of Defiant Gardens by Kenneth Helphand.

What they think in Worktown: Using photography to create a participatory archive.

Author: Caroline Edge (University of Bolton) email

Short Abstract

Using photographic research to investigate the relationship between community and archive in response to Mass Observation’s Worktown study of everyday life in Bolton.

Long Abstract

In 1937 Mass Observation went to Bolton to study 'the cannibals of the north'. Photographers and artists worked alongside trained and untrained participant observers to create an 'anthropology of ourselves'. Whilst artists were accorded the status of visionaries able to illuminate the confusion of society, the camera was used as a "scientific instrument of precision" to collect factual data. Photographer Humphrey Spender was asked to take the role of an "exploring ethnographer in a foreign country" documenting everyday life in the town's public spaces. Although MO intended the mass to create 'a collaborative museum', in 1930s Bolton a 35mm rangefinder camera 'seemed almost a sci-fi contraption' marking Spender as a privileged observer. Critical debates arising from his photographs have been informed by post-colonial theory; condemning the subjugating gaze of the photographer whilst admitting the potential of MO's surreal, multidisciplinary methods to transcend the politics of representation.

This paper presents visual research informed by these theoretical responses. It evaluates the outcomes of photographic methods used to explore the relationship between Bolton's community and Spender's photographs, now held in the Worktown Archive at Bolton Museum. The research has been undertaken in collaboration with people in the local community and has employed a range of techniques including digital repatriation, rephotography, photo-elicitation, sousveillance, and street photography. Within the research photography is understood as a creative and performative process. The mass accessibility of digital photography and shifting theoretical perspectives on photographic truth may enable participants to reactivate Spender's photographs as a participatory archive.

'I Dream of Home': Constructing an Archive of the Intangible

Author: Sri-Kartini Leet (University of Northampton) email

Short Abstract

This paper presents a photography project which collates images contributed by individuals which symbolize for them the idea of ‘home’. Exploring this approach in relation to ethnographic archives, issues around visual representation, personal narratives and contexts will be explored.

Long Abstract

The concept of 'home' has always occupied an indeterminate space: it can refer to a place that has been left behind, or a place to which one returns, or a new place that one, even temporarily, 'takes up'. 'Home' may therefore refer to a deeply familiar or foreign place, or it may simply be a passing point of reference. This lack of clarity in its meaning has also resulted in its being mythified as a site of utopian belonging.

Jointly supported by Ashoka U and PhotoWings, my project on photography explores ideas of 'home'. A range of participant/contributors (80-100) are photographed by me in the studio, and also asked to donate an image they regard as symbolic of their idea of 'home'. Personal history is often narrated within private settings, through oral means, and often through the sharing of photographs. This work asks contributors to reflect upon, and to find in their own personal archives or to make a new image, a photograph which conveys the essence of their relationship to a place of belonging. In this context, while particular locations are identifiable for some; for others, the theme or idea for the work resists a convenient scientific or empirical approach, and the archive reflects attempts to visualize a state of mind that is informed by lived experience, memory and fantasy.

How does a photograph communicate? Can personal images in a public context convey its significance? Contributors are also asked to explain their selection through written or oral means to provide a context for the work.

No Longer at Ease. Dialogues between Archives, Photographs, Scholars and the Public Sphere

Authors: Jürg Schneider (University of Basel) email
Rosario Mazuela email

Short Abstract

Inspired by recent scholarship which increasingly considers archives as subjects of study than primary as the location of sources this paper investigates various ways in which scholars and a general public can make use of the Cameroon Press Photo Archives that are currently being digitized.

Long Abstract

Developing and deepening their understanding of what archives are researchers of a variety of disciplines increasingly look at archives not only as neutral sites of storage but as subjects of investigation in their own right. Extending the simple question what scholars can do with archives to what archives themselves can do, thus marking a shift from an object-based to a subject-based way of looking at archives, this paper investigates the biography of the Cameroon Press Photo Archives and its historical and contemporary links to, and reciprocal relationships with, social and political practices of representation and documentation. On a general level it raises questions about the role of archives and archive-like activities in contemporary, and past, social and political life. The digitization and rearrangement of material, and the acquisition of data, which is currently carried out in the context of the project "Cameroon Photo Press Archives. Protection, Conservation, Access", is only the last in a series of several other historical moments indicating changing public, political and academic environments. It opens a window of opportunity for new ways of reading this outstanding Photo Archive. Founded in 1955 by the British colonial authorities and continued by the independent Cameroonian state the institution and its holdings bridge the colonial and postcolonial period and simultaneously reflect documentary practices and custodial activities. Charting the archives' biography allows us to follow its motions and movements, and the permanently renewed exchange by which the archive is influenced and simultaneously influences its environment.

On photographic presence — imaging Kuba king figures and other culture objects from colonial Africa 1910 - 1935

Author: Heike M. Neumeister (Birmingham City University) email

Short Abstract

The idea of the African culture object as ‘art’ is not due to the avant-garde but to ethnology and photography. By way of E. Torday, C. Einstein and photographs by W. Evans the paper argues for the ‘auratic presence’ of the ethnographic object as ‘art’ that by denoting aesthetic faculty recovers myth.

Long Abstract

In the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century culture objects from small-scale societies in the African territories under colonial control tended to be archived under the rubric of 'science' and installed in purpose-built ethnological institutions intent on spreading knowledge of alien and exotic societies. Whether seen as scientific specimen or artistic innovation, western responses to this material oscillated between exaltation and condemnation, from 'the most important work of art which primitive Africa has yet produced' (T. A. Joyce 1910) to 'that generally quite evil Negro sculpture that got stuck somewhere in the jungle' (E. Waldmann 1914).

Art history has often overlooked that the idea of the African culture object as 'art' is not due to the French and German artistic avant-garde and the phenomenon of 'primitivism', but to intellectual frameworks developed by anthropologists and museums. Building on the ethnology of Emile Torday, the Africanist work of art historian Carl Einstein and photographs by Walker Evans, the paper examines a small number of African culture objects and their encounter with anthropology, photography and the modernist discourse on art. The paper argues that emerging culture historical thinking and new approaches to photography is evident in the imaging of African sculpture objects in certain catalogues, books and journals. This created what could be termed the 'auratic presence' of the African object as an object of 'art', while at the same time the photograph as art object came of age, denoting an aesthetic faculty that recovered an appreciation of myth in modern western society.

Stepping into the unknown. The photographic archive of the Institute of Archaeology, Bucharest, Romania

Author: Catalin Nicolae ("Vasile Parvan" Institute of Archaeology) email

Short Abstract

This presentation will offer a glimpse of the Institute of Archaeology from Bucharest photo archive. It actually hosts three photo archives at a single venue, bringing together many thousands of negatives and printed photos, of immense importance for the history and archaeology of Romania.

Long Abstract

The "Vasile Parvan" Institute of Archaeology in Bucharest hosts three photo archives at a single venue - the archive of the former National Museum of Antiquities (1858-1947), of the Institute of Archaeology (1947-1995) and of the former Institute of Thracology (1980-1998).

Altogether the archive contains about 4000 B/W glass-plate negatives, 2000 B/W rolls of film negatives, 1000 colour slides, about 1000 aerial photographs and an unknown number of inadequately stored B/W and colour prints. It has no inventory, none of the material has been scanned, much of it is in process of decay and rapid action is needed to preserve it.

The archive, sadly neglected for many years until the writer's recent appointment as Curator of Photography, is of immense importance for the history and archaeology of Romania. The images show key actors of the archaeological and historical elites in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Most, if not all the principal archaeological sites and historic monuments of Romania are represented in a vast array of excavation and restoration photographs. Many of the documented sites and objects have disappeared or been destroyed during the wars that affected Romania in the last 150 years, especially World War I and World War II.

The presentation will offer a glimpse of the nature and content of the photographs in the archive, and of the light they can throw on the use of photography in recording the archaeology of Romania over the past hundred years and more.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.