The Camera As Historian

I’ve just been leafing through a copy of Elizabeth Edwards‘s new book The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885–1918, out now from Duke University Press.  It is a beautiful book, gorgeously designed and lushly printed; the photographs that are reproduced are so sensuous that I wanted every one to be at least three times larger than it is.

I should declare an interest at this point: Elizabeth very kindly asked me to write one of the blurbs on the book’s back jacket, which I was delighted to do.  I have long admired Elizabeth’s project to approach photographs as material objects which are created, stored, displayed and circulated by the convergent practices of people and technologies.  This book takes that approach to the widespread movement of amateur photographers who, around the turn of the last century, decided to photograph ‘old’ England as it was being destroyed by ‘modern’ England.  As my co-blurber Jennifer Tucker writes, the book thus explores the complex relationship between “visual practices and the historical imagination” (or at least, the historical imagination as it was practised at a certain moment in a particular place by a specific group of people).

One of the many things I like about the book – now I have the book in hand and not just its manuscript – is the way it reproduces many of the photographs it discusses.  They are shown not just as images, but as images published in the pages of books and magazines surrounded by text, or stuck onto neatly-filled-in archive record cards, or with handwritten captions scrawled around their edges.  The best example of just how crucial these different sorts of framings are to what the photographs mean and do, I think, is plate 50, which is in landscape format to respect the layout of the Somerset Archeological and Natural History Society’s Photographic Record cardboard frame; this means, though, that the actual photograph, which is in portrait format, appears as if it’s lying on its side.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen another book on photographs that’s dared to prioritise the archiving of the photograph – that is, what was done with it – over the image itself.  It’s just one of the many reasons to applaud this wonderful book.

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