Photographs as documents/photographs as objects: photo archives, art history and the material approach

Date01 October 2018
DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/CC-03-2018-0006
Publication Date01 October 2018
Pages146-150
AuthorCostanza Caraffa
SubjectLibrary & information science,Collection building & management
Photographs as documents/photographs as
objects: photo archives, art history and the
material approach
Costanza Caraffa
Max-Planck-Institut, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Florence, Italy
Abstract
Purpose This paper aims at demonstrating how the material approach questions conventional hierarchies of photographic value, showing a way
to deal with large quantities of photographs accumulated by scientic and scholarly disciplines in their archives.
Design/methodology/approach For generations, these photographs have been considered as pure documentations of the objects represe nted in
them (from artworks in museums to snowakes under a microscope). Documentary photographs have been understood as mere working tools that
can now be easily replaced by digital duplicates. Overcoming the long-established reduction of photographs to their visual conten t, the material
approach shifts attention to masses of anonymous photographs that are often disregarded within institutions because they do not match museum
systems of value based on uniqueness and authorship.
Findings Focussing on photographic and archival practices in art history, this paper aims at demonstrating how conceptual and methodological
tools such as agencyand materialitycan be made fruitful for theory and practice of photo archives able to explore their epistemological
potential. A case study from the Photothek of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz allows an insight into historical and contemporary dynamics
and practices of photographic archives.
Originality/value With its interwoven strands of archival practice and academic research, the Photothek unboxes itself as a laboratory for the
international, cross-disciplinary debate on the role and function of photographs and photographic archives in scholarship, suggesting a
methodological path for the entire eld. In conclusion, the paper shows that the rst necessary step for a long-term conservation of photo archives
is promoting research on the photographic objects.
Keywords Agency, Photography, Art history, Material culture studies, Photo archives, Photo objects
Paper type Conceptual paper
Most scientic and scholarly disciplines have accumulated
masses of photographs in their archives. For generations, these
photographs have been considered as pure documentations of
the objects they show (from artworksin museums to snowakes
under a microscope), mere working tools now believed to be
replaceable by digital duplicates. Overcoming the long-
established reduction of photographs to their visual content,
the material approach questions conventional hierarchies of
photographic value, showinga way to deal with large quantities
of photographs whose producers and production contexts are
mostly (at least apparently) unknown. Focussing on
photographic practices in art history, this paper aims at
demonstrating how conceptual and methodological tools such
as agencyand materialitycan be made fruitful for theory
and practice of photo archives able to explore their
epistemologicalpotential.
The development of photographic techniques in the
nineteenth century coincided with the establishment of art
history as an academic discipline. Photography provided the
chance to assemble on the art historians desk the
reproductions of works preserved in places even far apart. This
opened new prospects in comparative methods. In contrast to
prints, photographic reproductions of works of art gained
currency precisely by virtue of their promise of greater
evidence. The creation and institutionalization of photographic
archives dedicated to the documentation of works of art was
one of the consequences (Caraffa, 2011).The Photothek of the
KunsthistorischesInstitut in Florenz, founded in 1897, is a case
in point. By focussing on it in a diachronic perspective, it is
possible to investigate issues such as complex decision-making
processes by which photographs are acquired,classied, stored
and used in the analogueand in the digital era, and also the role
played by the agents involved in its history and the function of
art-historical photo archives as institutions that act as
guarantors of the documentaryveracityof photography.
A case study drawn from the Florentine Photothekallows an
insight into historical and contemporary dynamics and
practices of photographic archives. In the Painting/Gothic
section, several boxes are dedicatedto photographs of works by
Giotto, an important Italian painter of the Middle Ages. Some
of these boxes contain reproductions of the frescos in the
Scrovegni chapel in Padua. A series of 22 albumen prints was
identied in 2009 as dating back to a photographic campaign
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on
Emerald Insight at: www.emeraldinsight.com/2514-9326.htm
Collection and Curation
37/4 (2018) 146150
© Emerald Publishing Limited [ISSN 2514-9326]
[DOI 10.1108/CC-03-2018-0006]
Received 9 March 2018
Accepted 13 April 2018
146

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