DISCOURSES ON PHOTOGRAPHY AND NATURE ACROSS TIME AND PLACE
CATHERINE DE LORENZO
Name: Catherine M. De Lorenzo, Art Historian, (b. Sydney NSW, Australia)
Address: Architecture Program, Faculty of the Built Environment, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, Australia. E-mail: email@example.com
Fields of Interest: photographic history and theory, public art, ethnography, interdisciplinary art and design, twentieth century art.
Recent Publications and Papers relevant to the paper:
De Lorenzo, C. 2000b ‘Appropriating Anthropology? Document and Rhetoric’, Journal of Material Culture, 5, no.1, 2000: 91-113
De Lorenzo, C. 1998 ‘Interconnections’, catalogue essay in Whichaway? Photographs from Kiwirrkura 1974 - 1996 Jon Rhodes, Jon Rhodes, [Thora], 1998
De Lorenzo, C. 1997a Proceedings of the Conference Emergent Paradigms in Design Education: De Lorenzo, C. Sustainability, Collaboration and Community, Edited by C. De Lorenzo, Sydney, 1997
De Lorenzo, C. 1997b ‘Paradis Primitif: French Photographic Constructions of Australia’, History of Photography 21, no.4, Winter 1997: 319-329
From its inception in ca. 1839, photography was seen by its admirers and
detractors as oscillating somewhere between art and science. The one image
could be admired both for its replication of the subject (its scientific
value) and the interpretation by the photographer (its aesthetic value).
Several prints, taken in the late C19 by artist- photographers in Melbourne
and collected by science patrons and learned societies in Paris, will be
examined for ways in which they expose these debates and, in the process,
reveal an emerging discourse on geography, photography and art. The photographs
served as a kind of lingua
franca across cultures and disciplines in the 1880s and 1890s. Today
when historical photographs are examined through filters of nature, meaning,
and place, the arguments turn less on ideas of authority and authenticity
than they do interdisciplinarity. Geographers, photo-historians, art historians,
cultural theorists, and archivists have found they share a common visual
heritage. This renewed dialogue testifies to the contemporary value of
re-evaluating the images.
The paper will commence with a couple of photographic images taken by artist-photographers working in Melbourne in the 1880s. Being an artist photographer was in no way antithetical to being a successful commercial photographer (McCauley, 1994) and, although no analysis has been done on their accumulation of wealth, the evidence is that two leading Melbourne photographers, Nicholas John Caire and John William Lindt, successfully penetrated the popular market with landscapes and cityscapes, ethnographic and genre scenes. Their images also infiltrated scientific discourse (De Lorenzo, 1993, Edwards, 1992). In this specific instance they came to form, inter alia, part of the collection of the Société de Géographie de Paris, so they can fairly be examined as a medium for discourse across cultures, geographies, professions and disciplines. I am interested in the ways in which images such as these, which once formed part of a lingua franca across disciplines and cultures, have recently been retrieved from the archives in order both to demonstrate shared histories across disciplines and to be seen to provoke and interrogate new understandings of interdisciplinarity (Herbert 1995 and Mitchell 1995). On this latter point, W.J.T. Mitchell (1994) has upped the stakes and argued that a paradigmatic shift in intellectual discourse in ‘disciplines of human sciences and in the sphere of public culture’ might best be understood as centering on "the pictorial turn".
Can archival photographs, carrying
fragmented histories of exchange and transposition, be re-examined to retrieve
lost histories and to provoke new kinds of discourse between disciplines
that declare a vested interest in them? Scholars that have recently shown
most interest in archival photographs are art (especially photographic)
historians, geographers, archivists, and environmentalists (Bonyhady
2000). It is useful, therefore to co-examine some of their disciplinary-informed
strategies in order to understand how interdisciplinarity works, as it
were, at the coal face.
From the outset, both admirers and detractors saw photographs as demonstrating the closest one could achieve in reproducing nature, being freed from the biases and distortions embedded in drawings, sketches and hand-made prints. They came as close as was conceivable to an unmediated view of the world. Not only were photographs seen as somehow objective records of nature, but the high degree of correlation between the referent and the image provoked the use of metaphoric tropes such as ‘transparency’. The images of nature could be admired for their instrumental, authentic and, indeed, aesthetic values. ‘Nature photographs’, according to Dunaway, were seen ‘as truth-telling images and objects of beauty’ (2000: 215). Certainly, given the art and geographic provenance of the Lindt, Caire and McDonald images, one can concur with Jonathon Friday’s observation that ‘aesthetically pictorial and environmental values coincide’ (1999: 29). The breathtaking beauty of a photographed scene is no impediment to its scientific value, and, indeed, a skilled photographer might very well reveal intrinsic local qualities otherwise overlooked by the observational researcher.
After Sontag, Tagg, Burgin, Sekula and others fulsomely rebutted notions of photographic neutrality or transparency in the 1970s and 80s, more recent scholarship has sought to reconcile lingering inclinations to affirm the evidential value of certain photographs (‘that tree really did exist’, ‘doesn’t he look like his great grandfather, especially now that he too is in his seventies’) with the equally-obvious fact that when we look at a photograph we are indeed looking at a representation of the real. Photographs might not only show us the world, but show it to us ‘in a way we’ve never seen it before’ (Friday 1999: 34).
The printed image remains a more
reliable representation than almost any other form of visual imaging. It
may well be this transparency factor that opens a photograph to such widespread
use across disciplines, and cultures.
3. CONTEXTUAL TRANSFORMATIONS
The value of archival documents is predicated on evidence of authenticity: that they were written, authorized, signed or received by a person or organization, is intrinsic to their historical worth. An image might be understood within the confines of a particular setting, but the same image elsewhere might carry quite different meanings. These relativities of meaning are not solely attributable to replication. The meaning of any single image remains up for grabs: an image of a fern tree gully might be admired by an art curator, a botanist, an ecologist, a water catchment authority, an environmentalist, a tourist, and so on. Indeed, ‘it is their functional context that transforms photographic images into archival documents’ and that, depending on the purposes of the collecting institution/s and the interests/requirements of the researcher, the one ‘photographic image may become several, separate photographic documents’.
Effectively, these arguments suggest
that the hermeneutic value of an archival photograph can best be understood
after an understanding of its purpose within the archive shifts the open-ended
image into a useful archival document.
4. IMAGES AS PRE-TEXTS
The photographs under discussion
are the property of the Société de géographie de Paris
and are currently lodged in the Bibliothèque national de France.
One can only presume that the images were considered to have geographic
value: that they reflected assumptions about Australia or that they added
new data to the existing body of knowledge. What was their evidential status
within the archive? What has been their use-value? Geographers, like art
historians, have long cherished extensive visual archives in order to disseminate
information about their discipline. Short of endlessly embarking on study
tours of the world, geographers have taught their discipline with the help
of photographs, slides, maps, globes and other visual tools. These documents
have served as ‘pre-texts’ for the traveler and geographer alike: they
have constituted a sort of surrogate, ersatz experience for those unable
to experience the terrain themselves. Photographs have been read against
discourses on imperialism and post colonialism, travel (Crang
1997), embodiment and imaginings (Harvey), spectacle and the social: ‘having
learned…to exploit the embarrassment of riches in archives and libraries…geographers
must now venture into museum and gallery collections to recover from photographs
– preserved there for their artifactual importance or artistic merit –
their meanings as documents of culture’.
5.BACK TO STARTERS
It would seem, then, that if indeed
discourse in the ‘disciplines of human sciences and in the sphere of public
culture’ has taken "the pictorial turn", then understanding how images
have been critiqued, and might be critiqued, will become a sine qua
non for interdisciplinarity. Art historians are seen by many other
disciplines as having had a head start in terms of iconographic and image
analysis, but even there we see a desire to broaden the image field to
include maps, diagrams and other ‘images that are not art’ (Elkins
1995). The visual archive, and in particular the photographic archive,
is currently being re-examined by philosophers, cultural studies experts,
geographers, environmentalists, archivists and others keen to more closely
examine the extrinsic and intrinsic characteristics of the images. Significantly,
this expanding discourse embraces cyber-media as much as it does archival
photographs. At the end of the day we might ask if the nineteenth century
desire to regard the photographs ‘as truth-telling images and objects of
beauty’ – modes of enquiry that at least privileged (if also fetishized)
visual ways of knowing – can survive the verbal onslaught of analysis premised
on notions, for example, of transparency (mimesis), contextual transformation,
McLean, I. (2000), ‘False Messengers: Visual culture, cultural studies and the new art history’, Pre/dictions: the Role of art at the end of the millenium, Papers presented at the conference of the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand, Victoria University of Wellington, 2-5 December, 1999. 162-167