The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885-1918
by Elizabeth Edwards
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2012
344 pp., illus. 121 photographs (duotones). Trade: $99.95; paper: $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5090-3; ISBN: 978-0-8223-5104-7.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
This is a great book on a great subject by a great author (and, yes, by a great publisher as well, for the amount and quality of the often never published images in this well designed and impressive volume is exemplary).
The title of Edwards's study refers to an eponymous publication of 1916 that summarized both the aspirations and the utopia of a particular grassroots photographic movement: amateur survey photography, a movement that emerged in 1885 and continued till 1918, when the new social and political context had changed to such an extent that it was no longer possible to stick to the ideas and the ideals of the desire to document the material and immaterial remains of the past and to hand them on to further generations before their feared imminent disappearance (reconstruction and modernization had become the key words, and the nostalgic fascination with the old structures of old English life, the parish, the manor, the trees, were for some time unfashionable). The amateur character of this kind of photography is what Edwards insists on from the very beginning of her study: contrary to officially commissioned surveys, as the ones made during the famous US geographical expeditions of the 1860s and 1870s (analyzed by Robin Kelsey in his book Archive Style) or the even more famous FSA collections of the 1930s (a lasting landmark for all research in the field), but also contrary to artistically motivated private collections, such as witnessed in the work by Atget or, more recently, by the Bechers (today all thoroughly scrutinized in numerous studies), the photographic survey movement in England (other parts of the UK seemed to have been less involved) represents a kind of 'archive' or 'collection' whose existence has been widely acknowledged but rarely studied in detail. The reasons of this semi-absence are diverse: first of all the reluctance to take amateur photography seriously (the current interest in vernacular photography is a multifaceted story, which has not tended to disclose all aspects of non-professional picture making); second the difficulty to unearth the very material in the libraries and other collections where these images have been stored and often forgotten (and one can only praise the author for the fabulous field work that made her discover some 55.000 photographs by more than 1000 photographers, most of them totally unknown); and third but not last, the great difficulties in reconstructing what Elizabeth Edwards is most interested in: survey photography as a cultural practice.
A trained anthropologist and world-known specialist of colonial photography, Edwards does not examine these pictures at face value, for instance from an aesthetic, technical, or historical point of view. These perspectives are, of course, present but do not constitute the overall framework of the reading, which has to do with the relationship between photography and history, more precisely the role played by photography (the images as well as the social practices they shape) in the shifting historical consciousness. This relationship is dramatically complex: pictures save the past, for example, but at the same they cut it off from the lived experience; at the same time, picture "make" also the past, they invent or reshape a past and, even more, a relationship to the past that was different before them. More, in general, pictures hover between memory (the perpetuation of a direct relationship with the dead) and history (the reification of this relationship in monuments and archives).
Edwards's approach is based on three major pillars. First, a very profound but also very subtle and supple use of all the relevant scholarship in the field of "photography and history" studies. The author succeeds in integrating in a very elegant and convincing way the major insights of all the great thinkers in the field: Michel Foucault (on history and image as disciplinary forces, and on the same as the loci of a myriad of counter powers), Pierre Nora (who she confronts with Duncan Bell's notion of the "mythscape", that spatial and discursive realm that informs the production of historical knowledge), but also Christopher Penney (his work on colonial photography is here helpfully used to interpret the mapping of the local space in internal colonial terms) and Tony Bennett (whose studies on the place of museum in class-based popular education are a great tool to open the survey pictures to the wide range of their didactic and other uses). Second, an extremely well documented knowledge of the corpus, most elements of which are seen here for the very first time since the time of their making (if not for the very first time as such, since Edwards tackles also the problem of the dissemination of these images, which were both ubiquitous and hidden). And third, the admirable caution of a reader who is always looking for nuance and complexity. The most frequently occurring semantic knot in this book are expressions like: "this idea is not unchallenged", "other voices however", "the meaning of this practice is more complex than often assumed", etc.
The combination of these three stances (great erudition and absence of any pedantry; an amazing knowledge of fascinating archival material; and a great respect of the aspirations of the motivations of many common people of whom history has not kept many traces) produces a really groundbreaking work on the role of photography in history and vice versa. Photography and history (i.e. the idea, the feeling, the experience of history) reshape each other in many different ways, and Elizabeth Edwards has detailed this mutual process in a very detailed way that leaves no side unidentified (the book has for instance extremely interesting analyses of the relationship between the local, the national, and the imperial, just as it opens new grounds to the sociological analysis of the groups that commissioned, encouraged, made, exhibited, or ignored these pictures). At the same time, the work is incredibly modest, and there is in the tone of the book such a respect for its material that it communicates to the modern reader a strong sense of the love of the past that was much more than the narrow nostalgia or the simple fear of the vanishing of a lost (and largely mythical, imagined) order. If good history is a dialogue between past, present and future, then The Camera as History is best history.