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5. The Spectre of the Digital

I finished my last post thinking about shifting notions of ‘importance’ and ‘relevance’. This has, in part, been driven by digital technologies and the financial, socio-political and ethical pressures on institutions to give access to their collections, and in ways that connect to contemporary users. Likewise the massive and ever-increasing swirl of images in circulation is, of course, digitally-based, raising very real questions about the very nature of ‘photography’. more

Published: 20.10.2016
4. Exhibiting the New Historiographies

Which history of photography is told in museums? We are familiar with the usual parade of nineteenth-century photography such as Linnaeus Tripe, Roger Fenton and Julia Margaret Cameron, and then that of the great masters of the modernist canon who repeatedly adorn our gallery walls in some shape or other. These of course have their interest and their merits and such exhibitions have done much to raise the public sense that ‘photography is important.’ But what of the social history of photography, the photography that worked within people’s lives – those millions of humble and unremarkable photographs which mattered to people and which constitute the majority of photographs? more

Published: 13.10.2016
3. More on Categories

This week I want to pick up on the question of categories which has resonated through my last two posts on institutions, hierarchies and non-collections. The extent to which the categories of disciplinary landscapes and languages shape research was brought home to me forcibly when last year I contributed to an ‘at the print’ class for art history students. We were in Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, a major and politically savvy anthropology collection. We pulled from the collection Julia Margaret Cameron’s famous portrait of Charles Darwin. Despite having ‘done’ a Cameron class some weeks before, the students seemed unable to recognise it in any way. more

Published: 03.10.2016
2. The Presence of Non-Collections and the Challenge of Photographic Ecosystems

I recently attended a leaving party for a museum photographer of some 30 years service. The usual orations were accompanied by a digital slide show of his work over those last 30 years during which he had excelled in a range of museum demands. He made bundles of sticks look exciting and provided photographs of masks, chests or totem of such technical precision and virtuosic lighting that First Nations carvers in Canada could reconstitute the haptics of their traditional carving practices – retracing chisel marks. It was also a slide show of how a museum sees itself and how it performs its objects. Yet these photographs were, until that moment, invisible as a photographic practice, and above all, they are not understood as part of the photograph collection at that institution. They are non-collections, ‘just there’, everywhere and nowhere. more

Published: 23.09.2016
1. Patterns of Collecting, Institutional Mind-Sets and the Problem of Hierarchies

A few years ago I was talking to a curator of social history in a major British public museum service which I knew held substantial collections of photographs of the local region going back to the 1850s. I asked him how he thought about these photographs in his care, and how they related to the museum’s ethos and activities. To this he responded “well I don’t really – they are just there”. I have been thinking about the ‘just there’ quality of photographic collections ever since. How is it that a body of material, maybe 35,000 glass plates, of substantial importance in regional history can be ‘just there’? How are the tensions of specialness and ubiquity negotiated through institutional practices? more

Published: 15.09.2016

In her blog series, visual and historical anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards will scrutinize the processes and mechanisms of institutional collecting. Why and how are photographs acquired by institutions and what are the implications for the photographs that get curated? And what happens when non-collections are brought into the remit of ‘history of photography’? Edwards will discuss assumptions, categories of description and hierarchies of values that shape the management of collections and look at how the new historiography of photography is being articulated in museums and galleries. Finally, she will consider the impact of digital technologies on the way in which photographs are constituted as both historical objects and ‘collections’. What are the effects on institutional assumptions and practices, and what does this do to a history of photography and its articulation in public space? 

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6. The Liberation of Things

I ended my last post with the suggestion that underlying the recent turn to the ‘object’ or ‘thing’ one might glimpse a certain ‘posthumanist’ anxiety – an anxiety occasioned by the degree to which capitalist modernity is a world “ruled by abstractions”, in the words of Marx; abstractions that have come to assume an objective reality which is ‘quasi-independent’ of the things, objects and individuals that constitute them, but which is not ‘material’ in any usual empirical sense. Such abstract social forms – money, the commodity, the value form – do not merely ‘conceal’ the ‘real’ social relations and objective networks constitutive of capitalism, but, on the contrary, actually are the ‘real’ relations that structure capitalist modernity as an increasingly global mode of social life encompassing human and non-human ‘things’ alike. The actual organisation of social and material relations is driven by a real abstraction that, far from being a question of mere faulty thinking or false consciousness, “moves within the object itself”. more

Published: 18.07.2016
5. If Commodities Could Speak

“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood”, writes Marx, famously, in the first chapter of Capital. “Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”. For while, as an ‘ordinary’ object, “the table continues to be that common, everyday thing, wood”, “so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. more

Published: 09.07.2016
4. If Images Could Speak

In a recent contribution to the collection Documentary Across Disciplines, based on a series of events held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin between 2010 and 2014, Christopher Pinney begins his essay, entitled “Bruises and Blushes: Photography ‘Beyond’ Anthropology”, with a quotation from Barthes’ Camera Lucida: “Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it”. more

Published: 17.06.2016
3. If Things Could Speak

“What if things could speak? What would they tell us? Or are they speaking already and we just don’t hear them? And who is going to translate them?” It is such questions that Hito Steyerl suggests, in her 2006 article “The Language of Things”, are posed in an essay written ninety years earlier: Walter Benjamin’s posthumously published “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”. Here, Steyerl argues, the great German philosopher and critic “develops the concept of a language of things”, where “there is a language of stones, pans and cardboard boxes. Lamps speak as if inhabited by spirits. Mountains and foxes are involved in discourse. High-rise buildings chat with each other. Paintings gossip”. more

Published: 13.06.2016
2. The Return of the Real (Again)

In my previous post I tried to sketch out some of those questions provoked by a contemporary desire, in the words of Hito Steyerl, to side with and affirm the object. While this affirmation has coincided with a more general turn towards the object or thing in recent theoretical writing – and, consequently, away (or so it is said) from earlier concerns with language, text, discourse and sign – it has also been attached, in Steyerl and others, to a more specific call to rethink the character of 'the image', and of 'our' relationship to it, as one framed not by an “identification” with the image “as representation”, but precisely “with the image as thing”. more

Published: 27.05.2016
1. Photography and the Language of Things

In her short 2010 text “A Thing Like You and Me”, Hito Steyerl traces what she describes as a shift from an “emancipatory practice” that would be tied to the “desire to become a subject” (of, say, politics or history) to the emergence, today, of a “different possibility”: “How about siding with the object for a change? Why not affirm it? Why not be a thing?” more

Published: 18.05.2016

Until the end of June, David Cunningham will reflect on some current debates around photography and what Hito Steyerl terms “the language of things in the realm of the documentary form”. The blog will examine what seems in such debates a widespread desire to withdraw from representation altogether, whereby the image becomes (to borrow Steyerl’s own citation of Benjamin) “without expression”, not a representation of reality but “a fragment of the real world”, a “thing just like any other”. Engaging with the history of a certain avant-garde that lies behind this, the blog will then pose some questions concerning the political as well as ‘aesthetic’ implications of such a thought of the photographic image.

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