Future Histories | Steffen Siegel | Thursday, 04.06.2020

Lowering the Sights?

Right at the beginning of my blog series, I asked: Do you read histories of photography? Having myself in mind, I suggested an answer: rather not, at least not from cover to cover. In my second post, I focused on a particular model of writing photo history that I attributed to Beaumont Newhall and his interest in an art historical point of view. Despite forty years of criticism directed at this model, it seems to be hard to conceive alternatives. At least so far there is none that has replaced Newhall’s paradigm, which leads back to the 1930s. His influence is apparent when it comes to older compendia, such as Helmut Gernsheim’s (first published in 1955). 1Helmut Gernsheim, Alison Gernsheim, The History of Photography From the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the Eleventh Century up to 1914 (London: Oxford University Press 1955). But as I have and will continue to discuss in this post, several of Newhall’s essential methodological decisions also echo in more recent overviews of photo history. Beyond Newhall? Not really, it seems. A more nuanced answer to my first question could therefore be: We don’t read such books precisely because they present an old-fashioned way of thinking about the medium’s history.

For quite a while now, the years around 1980 have been regarded as a formative period for postmodern photo criticism. In addition to many essential texts – shorter essays as well as comprehensive books – an impulse for founding new journals led to a remarkable number of journalistic magazines and scholarly periodicals. They all began to appear around the same time, some of them still existing today: History of Photography (since 1977), Fotografie (1977–1985), Camera Austria International (since 1980), European Photography (since 1980), Fotogeschichte (since 1981), Les Cahiers de la Photographie (1981–1990), etc. Despite apparent differences regarding their particular interests, audiences, and scholarly ambitions, all of these projects have one thing in common: They were (and still are) meant to provide an ongoing forum for a research field that is becoming increasingly diversified and, certainly not least, emancipated from the art historical scheme of framing photo history.

The magazine Fotografie, which appeared in a total of forty issues and was produced in Göttingen, Germany, by Wolfgang Schulze, took the unambiguous title particularly seriously. 2See Reinhard Matz, Steffen Siegel, Bernd Stiegler (eds.), Wolfgang Schulz und die Fotoszene um 1980 (Leipzig: Spector Books, 2019). The journalistic methods may have moved away from an overarching narrative, providing a more detailed comment on photography’s history and present. However, the object itself remained unchanged: “photography” was tackled as a whole, that is, in all its materialities, contexts and usages. My remarks are meant to be more than just a somewhat eccentric antiquarianism; I am pointing this out because a decade or so ago, a second wave of new journals occurred, but now with different ambitions. Academic journals such as Photography and Culture (since 2008) or Philosophy of Photography (since 2010) make it apparent that photo-related knowledge production has entered a new phase of specialization and thus differentiation – a process that is still ongoing.

Thus, is there any demand for narratives that still, or again, could provide a bigger picture as discussed in my first blog post? It is quite easy to point at recently published answers. For example, one could refer to those projects that follow Newhall’s historiographic model more or less explicitly by presenting just one more art history of photography. 3André Gunthert, Michel Poivert, L’art de la photographie: Des origines à nos jours (Paris: Citadelles & Mazenod, 2007). Differently, another book genre tries to focus its interest by emphasizing specific topics, for instance, the history of female photographers. It is impossible to name all the relevant publications. 4 Among them, for example: Val Williams, The Other Observers: Women Photographers in Britain 1900 to the Present (London: Virago, 1986); Naomi Rosenblum, A History of Women Photographers (New York, London, Paris: Abbeville Press, 1994; 2nd ed., updated and expanded 2000); Lothar Schirmer (ed.), Frauen sehen Frauen. Eine Bildgeschichte der Frauen-Photographie. Von Julia Margaret Cameron bis Inez van Lamsweerde (Munich: Schirmer Mosel, 2001); Lena Johannesson, Gunilla Knape (eds.), Women Photographers – European Experience (Gothenburg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 2004); Inka Graeve Ingelmann (ed.), Female Trouble. Die Kamera als Spiegel und Bühne weiblicher Inszenierungen (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2008); Boris Friedewald, Women Photographers: From Julia Margaret Cameron to Cindy Sherman (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 2014); Ulrich Pohlmann (ed.), Qui a peur des femmes photographes? 1839–1945 (Vanves: Éditions Hazan, 2015).We can find a remarkably broad and diverse spectrum that leads from thorough exhibition catalogs to iffy coffee table books. With critical regard to older publications, most of these books aim to close glaring gaps. Nevertheless, it is striking that many of these attempts still rely on criteria that they draw from traditional historiographies. In a quite surprising way, the whole set of art historical methods and related concepts is alive: artists, masterworks, styles, periods, influence, etc.

This kind of inscription is even more evident in a book genre that has recently enjoyed a remarkable career. For some years now, we can read histories that classify their subject according to the category ‘nation.’ It probably began with a reference work whose title promised the very opposite: a European history of photography. 5Václav Macek (ed.), The History of European Photography, 6 vols. (Bratislava: Central European House of Photography, 2010–2016). See also http://www.historyofphotography.eu Yet, when we open these six volumes, it becomes evident that the adjective is little more than an umbrella term used to encompass a multitude of individual national histories. There is no need to spend too much time speculating about the reasons. After the Cold War came to an end and with many new or re-founded states, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, the time was ripe to write Czech, Slovakian, Hungarian, Croatian, etc. histories of photography – until then they all had hardly been written. Yet, what exactly does ‘nation’ mean here? The editors of The History of European Photography opted, in a problematic way, to arrange the manifold historical objects based on state borders that had been hardly more than thirty years old; at least this is true in many cases.

Besides these six comprehensive volumes, another book series has gained some prominence in the past years. Since 2007, the Exposures series has led to ten books that all use the catchy formula “Photography and X.” 6For a comprehensive list of all 23 volumes (at present) see http://www.reaktionbooks.co.uk X stands for Italy and Germany, but also Tibet and Egypt, China and Japan – apparently there is no lack of international breadth. However, it may come as a surprise that we miss the volumes on France and Great Britain of all countries. And it may be even more surprising that just one single volume covers the entire African continent. Don’t get me wrong: I am not implying any nationalistic motives to all these authors who have contributed to the Exposure series. (By the way, within the same series, there are also numerous volumes in which the X stands for systematic aspects: humor, travel, literature, science, war, etc.) Instead, I would be inclined to ask: Do such national histories of photography make a contribution that reaches beyond the information we could have easily found in the global accounts I have briefly discussed in my second blog post?

Keeping a volume like “Photography and Tibet” 7Clare Harris, Photography and Tibet (London: Reaktion Books, 2016). in mind, the answer is easy: Probably it is for the first time that a Western audience (and perhaps not only this one) gets access to this subject matter in much greater detail. In the volume “Photography and Germany,” 8Andrés Mario Zervigón, Photography and Germany (London: Reaktion Books, 2017). on the other hand, the author took the opportunity to sketch a history of modernity from a photo historical point of view. Taking the published volumes of the Exposure series as a whole, it does not appear that this series aims at developing a new encyclopedic narrative. Instead, it becomes clear that these books stand in as an attempt to lower the sights to broaden the perspective. A multitude of smaller narratives has replaced the grand récit.