Why is Photography so inconsistently researched?

There is very little in Archives and Records Management that is truly resolved. From a lack of funding for new positions to the ethical consideration of including marginalized people in archives, there is no lack of challenges.  Selecting only one or several issues is challenging, but there is one in particular that will likely shape my own career. Photography is often neglected and backlogs are ever increasing as more and more processes become obsolete.  This is due to the odd place that 19th century photography exists in, belonging in the art museum, archive and history museum.

Photography, unlike manuscripts or other word based media, has no comfortable spot. It does not immediately present itself as collectible solely for either artistic or historic value. Alexander Gardner’s photographs are just often found in museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art as they are at the Library of Congress. They bear a philosophical problem than then manifests a logistical one.  It has been discussed ever since soon after its development, when in the 1860’s carte-de-visite photographers would call their work art while they also calling themselves craftsmen. A century and a half later, it is just as unclear about its place in remembering the past.  If its fundamental status as art or craft is undecided, then its long term repository is also unstable. Where an individual photograph lands, in either the museum or the archive will hugely impact the information gained from it.

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Lutheran Church, Sharpsburgh, Maryland, September, 1862.By Alexander Gardner. At the Met.

If it is sent to an art museum, it will likely receive much more individualized care and attention than it will as part of a larger collection of photographs at an archive. The Getty spent several hours attempting to discover a certain creator of images in order to add more information about  20 photographs. Archives and Special Libraries simply do not have this ability, and cannot even dream of have an individualized catalog of each image. In working on a collection of  cartes-de-visite, I have handled 17000 image roughly three time:  to find the best images, to be numbered, and to be interfiled with another set. This collection is one of the lucky in that the original compiler sorted the images by last name of photographer so they are in a comprehensive order that is truly usable by researchers.

This can be seen even better in the understanding of photograph albums. In 2009, the Art Institute of Chicago put together a show about the artistry in a set of Upper Class Victorian English albums. Each album was checked for condition, conserved, researched, better cataloged, photographed and displayed with unique mounts. Archives, which often have a much deeper collection of American albums must consider if this is even helpful.  The Art Institute of Chicago, coming from an Art History  background is going to invest the time and money into gaining as much research as possible about the object. Places like the Clements, coming from a research support background, must invest less time in individual collections so that researchers gain access. The fact that similar institutions have similar albums but gains widely different information from them demonstrates the tenuous spot the medium holds.

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The Book that the Art Institute of Chicago produced, by Dr. Elizabeth Siegel. Highly recommended reading for the feminist Victorianist.

Photography has always been the somewhat neglected cousin of the art and history worlds. It proves points about history, that Abraham Lincoln went to Sharpsburg in 1862, or that women’s fashion of the 1860s was complex and full of diverse patterns on fabric. Yet, it is not ever really considered for its own value. A photograph of a relative can reveal personality than a letter never can.  I think about the Helen Moorhouse album at the Clements, where she wrote a long daybook that revealed relatively little about her emotions or interior thoughts. It is the images that make it clear that the friendships she speaks of were deep and intense for the summer they lasted.

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Lincoln at Sharpsburg, MD. 1862.

The core problem is not that photography is some marginalized medium. It is the fact that unlike paintings or manuscripts, it has not been codified into a set of rules about its importance. It’s too young and too boundary breaking to have a spot. For the art world, as Beaumont Newhall pointed out, it is too common. For the archive, it often leans too far into the artistic to appear to have much historical importance. Yet, these images have  to go somewhere. No 19th century invention affected the world as much as photography did. We see the world through photographs today, from Facebook profiles where we gain information about friends flung far to the wind to new photographs of Syrian refugees. People have recognized its importance, and are often reluctant to throw them away.

Trying to grapple with this question is often what consumes me. There are so many issues tied up in photography that even trying to unravel one only tightens another. It’s a frightful beast, always leading us to unknown places, even if we try to guide it.

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