Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 16, 2013
Elizabeth Edwards The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885–1918 Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. 360 pp.; 121 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9780822351047)

Consult the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, edited by John Hannavy (New York: Taylor and Francis Group, 2008), and you will not find an entry on English record and survey photography, nor is the subject mentioned in the lengthy article on “survey photography.” But there is a biographical entry on Sir John Benjamin Stone, and it includes a curious editorial comment: “That Stone is not more celebrated should be a national shame, for he presented England with its history” (1351). Stone (1838–1914) was the founder of the National Photographic Record Association, one of dozens of British turn-of-the-century survey initiatives that took on the photographic preservation of the nation’s historical past. The approving blurb in the Encyclopedia is revealing in several ways. It reminds us that Stone and the photography he represents has been almost completely forgotten in the present day, and underscores the fact that the photographic project of presenting England with “its history” has often been characterized as the work of one man. We can also surmise that patriotic assumptions about the moral value of knowing one’s national history are still in play. But implicit in that simple declaration are the thornier propositions that England has an indivisible organic history and that this history could be narrated effectively in photographs. But how would you narrate even a single linear thread of history with the mute abundance of photography? What would govern decisions of inclusion and exclusion in such a project? What part would aesthetics or photographic style play in this photography, if any? How would such photographs be interpreted, labeled, organized, stored, and distributed to make them relevant and accessible for posterity? Perhaps most of all, what would justify this herculean endeavor?

Elizabeth Edwards considers these questions and their attendant complexities in The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885–1918. The book exposes the knotty conjunction of two hidden histories: one of survey photography and one of amateur photography. That the record and survey movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has remained virtually invisible is largely the consequence of its having been created by an amateur workforce; with only one well-known photographer (Stone) significantly associated with it, the large and varied work gathered together under the record and survey rubric was easily ignored in master narratives of the history of photography written in the twentieth century. Although the field now hosts a greater range of critical perspectives, record and survey photography still suffers from over-simplification, when it is treated at all.

Comprising tens of thousands of images of parish churches, medieval houses and cottages, ancient mile markers, quaint local costumes, and atavistic customs—indeed, anything that might be construed as historically patinated—record and survey photography has typically been taken in sum as an anxious defense against modernity, committed to reproducing the values of an empire in decline. In problematizing this characterization, Edwards is working counter to the received wisdom about British record and survey photography that informs works such as John Taylor’s A Dream of England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994); V. L. Pollock’s “Dislocated Narratives and Sites of Memory: Amateur Photographic Surveys in Britain, 1889–1897” (Visual Culture in Britain 10, no. 1 (2009): 1–26); and Jens Jäger’s “Picturing Nations: Landscape Photography and National Identity in Britain and Germany in the Mid-Nineteenth Century” (in J. M. Schwartz and J. Ryan, eds., Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination, London: I. B. Tauris, 2003). Instead, Edwards argues that although such patriotic, sentimental, and even propagandistic meanings were certainly implicit in the movement as a whole, to see it simply as a “retreat into a conservative and reactionary nostalgia” (22) is to miss the breadth of divergent and complex agendas of the thousands of photographers who contributed to the survey collections, not to mention the varying ways that different audiences might make meaning from the images. For Edwards, a historical and visual anthropologist, the central theme of The Camera as Historian is really the relationship of photography to the historical imagination—how real individuals and the collectives they formed articulated what their history was and struggled to practice a photography that could record and even body forth that evidence into the future. Given that survey photography was largely produced by men and women from myriad shadings of the middle- and working classes, and consumed by hundreds of thousands of people from all backgrounds, Edwards argues that record and survey photography must be recognized for the “complex and . . . quietly radical” ways it produced history (22). If the pictures sometimes reproduce the social order, they can also be seen to propose “a refigured space in the context of the broader discursive order” (23).

The movement never had a government mandate, although it followed calls for a comprehensive visual record of Britain’s past made by hundreds of individuals and implemented through dozens of regional and local institutions, societies, and committees that formed in response to the challenge. Edwards has worked meticulously through the archives and other textual remnants of these individuals and organizations, and while her thinking throughout the book is in dialogue with a wide spectrum of philosophers, sociologists, and theorists, she nevertheless takes pains to let the primary sources speak for themselves. As she informs readers at the outset, her charge is not a study of the broad cultural context that produced the record and survey movement, but an ethnographic exploration into how this movement formed out of particular conditions. In the first chapter, Edwards does sketch some of the broader strains that precipitated the survey movement: photography’s perception as an empirical means of record making; the nineteenth-century ascendancy of the visual; the technological and cultural changes that allowed photography to become a mass art in the 1880s; the understanding of photography as a temporal vector that simultaneously hosted the past, present, and future; and the accelerating socio-economic changes that created a national preoccupation with the historical past. But here, as she has elsewhere, Edwards argues that it is necessary to look to the margins to overcome the homogenizing or over-dichotomizing perspectives that result from macroscopic study of core trends. In the activities of local photographers, she discerns “small acts of agency in the construction and legitimation of narratives of history” (10) that fit as much or more with a tenacious sense of the local than with any totalizing feeling of national identity. Edwards concludes that the surveys gestured in several directions at once: outward toward the sweeping ideals of the empire, and inward to cherished, everyday specificities of the local; backward toward the nostalgic past and forward to a dynamic anticipated future.

In approaching the work as ethnography, Edwards declares her interest to be less in the pictures themselves than in the pattern of cultural and social processes behind them. Her research found traces of some seventy-three separate surveys (she limits herself to those in England), and she worked on seventeen in detail, unpacking semiotic meanings latent within each facet of survey photographs’ production. This includes the language used to discuss the pictures, the variety of aesthetic styles chosen by photographers, technical choices made in the photographs’ printing, styles of captioning and labeling, and finally, the many aspects of their management within their institutional destinations. With no central agency to dictate objectives or protocols for survey work, photographers, survey societies, libraries, local archives, and museums were all free to settle the questions for themselves. Edwards found many differences in the ways the photographs were conceived, produced, and managed from start to finish, and her scrupulous examination of those minute choices gives The Camera as Historian its depth.

The book’s principal weakness lies in Edwards’s way of using the photographs themselves. She explains, with good reason, that the pictures were chosen as representatives of certain types of survey photographs, and that they are even somewhat interchangeable. But presumed interchangeability leads to some moments of confusion for the reader. For example, discussing the tension between pictorial and scientific modes of photographing, she writes, “This discursive overlap did not necessarily constitute a stylistic dichotomy, but a succession of privilegings and suppressions required to make record photographs (see figure 33),” with no further comment about what we are seeing in the illustration (92). In suggesting a photograph’s signifying qualities are self-explanatory, Edwards reproduces the very problem of photography’s ostensible transparency that she draws out so well in the text.

Still, Edwards has a remarkable ability to make a collection of unassuming raw material into a book that is entirely engrossing. The modest images in The Camera as Historian are themselves rarely compelling; in fact, as Edwards shows, the survey community tended to eschew beauty in favor of ideals of scientific accuracy and legibility, and even advocated a selflessness that disallowed personal artistic vision—another reason this photography has been ignored.

The Camera as Historian is many things at once. At moments, it is a historiography that concerns both British history and the history of photography, though this is really a by-product of Edwards’s research. From the standpoint of photographic history, the book is a superb reference on the genre of survey, the British photographic world of the time, and the equivocal place of the amateur within that world. It also stands as a thoroughgoing and highly concrete addition to the literature of archival theory and practice. Edwards also joins Patrizia Di Bello (Women’s Albums and Photography in Victorian England, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), Martha Langford (Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums, Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2008) (click here for review), Mary Warner Marien (Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History 1839–1900, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), Grace Seiberling and Carolyn Bloor (Amateurs, Photography, and the Mid-Victorian Imagination, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), Paul Sternberger (Between Amateur and Aesthete: The Legitimization of Photography as Art in America, 1880–1900, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001), and Nancy M. West (Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000), among other scholars, in adding to the slim but growing literature on nineteenth-century amateur photography. Finally, as an ethnography, the book has to be commended for its outstanding comprehensive depiction of the cultural values that gathered around the abstractions of history and national identity and induced a sweeping domestic movement to reify them in visual form.

Laurie Dahlberg
Associate Professor, Program in Art History, Bard College