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Abstract May 4, 2018–Alice Detjen, Amélie Pierre, Jacob Birken


Alice Detjen,  Carl von Ossietzky Universitaet Oldenburg
The Mother and the House: Sites of inception in Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photography

The French philosopher Roland Barthes, who developed his theory of photography from the event of his mother’s death, made an important observation by referring to Sigmund Freud: The  psychoanalyst said of the maternal body that « there is no other place of which one can say which so much certainty that one has already been there »[1]. Can we identify here an analogy between photography and the maternal principle? In this perspective, the capacity of the medium to provide memory stems from an understanding of photography, and especially portraiture, that creates images by an act of « bearing ».
But how can we locate this kind of semiological approach in the history of photography? Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879), one of the first female victorian photographers, is an excellent example: Dimbola Lodge, the Isle of Wight cottage where she lived and worked for 15 years was both a destination for the Anglo-Indian migrant, and a starting point for her artistic career. The house was ironically described by Cameron as a breeding place for her photography, who put herself into a « maternal » position. Indeed she was interested in creating images of very strong individuals in her portraiture, which can be interpreted as a symbolic act of live-giving.  The metaphor of birth is a wide spread trope in 19. century art criticism, which was emphatically stated by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche among others. Camerons work essentially refers to the potential of art as life-giving by reflecting on photography as a « maternal » principle of creation, thus metaphorizing the medium’s capacity to signify and therefore memorize the individual.
However, both photography and motherhood have undergone structural changes at the same time, both of them being increasingly determined by technical operations. The involvement with the image of the pregnant or postnatal female body in contemporary photography is distinctive in this respect, pointing to an inversion of the site of memory: It is the bodies which are shown as the archives of individual memories.

[1] Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, transl. by Richard Howard. New York 1994, p. 40.

Amélie Pierre, Université de Namur
Photographie et minorité : des promesses modernes d’émancipation par l’imaginaire à une pragmatique de l’agency

Les minorités de toutes formes sont définies comme sous-système ou hors-système par les majorités (DELEUZE G. GUATTARI F., 1980). Cette définition normative induit à la fois la dépendance et l’exclusion répétée. La participation à la représentation de soi, à l’expression et à l’énonciation collective est antinomique par rapport à la définition même de ces groupes. L’étude de la participation collective de minorités à des espaces de figuration se prête à un questionnement politique : que se joue-t-il au cours de ces dispositifs.
Ce questionnement est appliqué à un corpus de données collecté par une méthode ethnographique multisituée et d’observation participante. La méthode américaine d’animation d’ateliers photographiques, nommée Literacy through photography, prend une place importance dans mon corpus de cas. Cette méthode est fondée aux Etats-Unis par la pratique de la photographe Wendy Ewald avec différentes communautés marginalisées (autochtones, afro-américaines, etc.) dans une optique d’émancipation. Elle est actuellement transmise par le CDS de l’université de Duke. Cette méthode est à la fois un objet d’étude ainsi qu’une méthode de travail que j’ai employée pour l’animation de deux ateliers photographiques. Les usages de la photographie, issus de terrain européens et anglo-saxons, sont questionnés conjointement en termes d’apports politiques pour les minorités.
L’anthropologie de l’art d’Alfred Gell (GELL A., 2009) est mobilisée afin d’interroger l’agentivité des photographies pour déconstruire les représentations collectives des minorités. Elle permet également de questionner l’agentivité des minorités et des différents agents du réseau au cours du dispositif de production et de diffusion en termes de dépendance et d’exclusion des minorités participantes. L’apport de la notion d’agentivité des images et de l’approche de l’anthropologie de l’art anglo-saxonne de Gell est souligné.

Jacob Birken, writer and independent researcher
Ten Views Down Sacramento Street, 18th April 1906

On an early April morning in 1906, an earthquake struck the coastal metropolis of San Francisco; the following fires destroyed large parts of the city, killed thousands and left many thousands more without homes and belongings. While catastrophic events like the American Civil War had previously been documented and mediated through photography, the San Francisco disaster might be the paradigmatic mass media event of the early 20th century. An extraordinary convergence of new technologies, socio-political and economic interests, and artistic thought resulted in gigantic aerial panoramas, a seemingly endless supply of cheap postcards and stereoscopic photographs just as well as in artistic attempts to re-frame the destroyed city as a picturesque site.
These photographs served different purposes and were aimed at different audiences; the means of their production were as diverse as the means of reproduction, ranging from hastily coloured postcards, crude halftones for daily newspapers, to unique prints for gallery displays or the bourgeois connoisseur. Yet, later reception tends to reduce the entirety of these images to their value as purportedly ‘objective’ documents, neglecting both the individual agency of the photographers and the material qualities – and actual uses – of the photographic prints themselves.
The most striking example is the indeed most popular image of the 1906 disaster: A view down Sacramento Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown, shot by bohemian portrait photographer Arnold Genthe on the morning of the 18th April. While Genthe himself, vocal in his support for photography as art and Pictorialism as its most adequate aesthetic and technical framework, produced and presented his 1906 images to be shown as artworks, later generations – including gatekeepers like Beaumont Newhall – easily re-framed his photos as ‘documents’ or even ‘news photography’. This re-framing is, nevertheless, not arbitrary, and closely linked to the changing ideologies regarding the ‘truth’ of photography and related aesthetic paradigms. This paper attempts to track the different reproductions/re-framings of Genthe’s image throughout the decades after the disaster – both in regards to the varying interpretations as ‘art’ or ‘document’, and to the actual material and aesthetic practices employed to enforce either interpretation.