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Journal Article

Photography and the Material Performance of the Past

Elizabeth Edwards
History and Theory
Vol. 48, No. 4, Theme Issue 48: Photography and Historical Interpretation (Dec., 2009), pp. 130-150
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25621444
Page Count: 21
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Photography and the Material Performance of the Past
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Abstract

This article explores the significance of the material practices of photography and its archiving in interpretive approaches to the relationship between photographs and history. Drawing on work in material culture studies in anthropology and on the concept of "material hermeneutic," it argues that photographs should not be understood only through forensic and semiotic analysis of content, but as objects that constitute material performances of a complex range of historiographical desires in the negotiation of the relations among past, present, and future. The analysis is grounded in an exploration of the material practices of the photographic survey movement in England between 1885 and 1918. This loosely cohered group of amateur photographers recorded a historical topography of ancient churches, cottages, passing events, and folk customs in order to create a photographic record for the benefit of future generations. As such it was a self-conscious statement of "popular historicism." The members' concern for key values of permanence and accuracy, expressed through the detail of photographic and archival processes, reveals the ways in which cultural loss and photographic loss become mutually sustaining metaphors for each other, and in which the photographs themselves are material markers of both evidential value and of an affective historical imagination.

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