Photographs as Objects


‘Photographs as Objects’ Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart in Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, edited by Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, Routledge, London, 2004. 1-15


[Edwards and Hart note that in Camera Lucida what Barthes] describes first is not the image of two children but a material object. It is a photograph that carries on it the marks of its own history, of its chemical deterioration, and the fact that it once belonged to a broader visual narrative, pasted in an album, the pages of which were, we can conjecture, repeatedly handled as they were turned, re-enacting its narrative in many different contexts.

Photographs are both images and physical objects that exist in time and space and thus in social and cultural experience.

These [material] characteristics cannot be reduced to an abstract status as a commodity, nor to a set of meanings or ideologies that take the image as their pretext.

[…] thinking materially about photography encompasses processes of intention, making, distributing, consuming, using, discarding, and recycling, all of which impact on the way in which photographs as images are understood.


Frequently photography’s materiality is engaged with only in relation to the coinnosseurial ‘fine print’ on the one hand and conservational concerns on the other.


Despite the clear realisation of this physical presence, the way in which material and presentational forms of photographs project the image into the viewers space is overlooked in many analyses.

The transparency of the medium is such that ‘in order to see what the photograph is of we must first suppress our consciousness of what the photograph is in material terms. (Batchen 1997: 2)

Image content is, of course, fundamental
there is a need to break, conceptually, the dominance of image content and look at the physical attributes of the photograph that influence content in the arrangement and projection of visual information.

Just as Barthes argues that the image and the referent are laminated together, two leaves that can’t be separated […], photographs have inextricably linked meanings as images and meanings as objects; an indissoluble, yet ambiguous, melding of image and form, both of which are direct products of intention.

These material forms exist in dialogue with the image itself to create the associative values placed on them.

[…] material characteristics have a profound impact on the way images are ‘read’, as different material forms both signal and determine different expectations and use patterns.


Materiality can be said here [in the book] to have a positivist , in that it is concerned with real physical objects in a world that is physically apprehendable not only through vision but through embodied relations of smell, taste, touch and hearing.

However, as the chapters demonstrate, we are dealing not with a reductive fetishism, but with a complex and fluid relationship between people, images and things.

The materiality of photographs takes two broad and interrelated forms. First it is the plasticity of the image itself, its chemistry, the paper it is printed on, the toning, the resulting surface variations. […] Second are the presentation forms, such as cartes de visite, cabinet cards, albums, mounts and frames, with which photographs are inseperably enmeshed and which have constituted a major consumer market since the nineteenth century, especially after the Kodak revolution of the late 1980s.

Both these forms carry another key element, the physical traces of usage and time.

[Hart & Edwards discuss developments in anthropology, visual anthropology, and cultural studies]


[discusses social biography as a methodology]


Resonating throughout these essays are two forms of social biography, relating to the forms of materiality we have just outlined. First […] is the social biography of image content, such as different prints, publication formats, lantern slides and so forth, all of which involve changes of material form. Second is the social biography of a specific photograpic object, which may or may not be physically modified as it moves through space and time.

The model is strongly linked to that of visual economy as developed by Deborah Poole (1997). [extends Taggs ‘visual currency’]

While clearly representational content is a key element in this model, material forms and their use value have, argues Poole, equal weight as integral to the way in which groups of images were exchanged, accumulated and thus given social value, the power of the image being related to their status as accumulated objects (Poole 1997:11-12)

Throughout the history of photography […] the visual properties of the surface of the image have depended on the material.

These material forms have exeeded a direct indexical visual use, and created, literally and metaphorically, another dimension to the image.

The eye as a bodily organ functions within a larger somatic context. This implies specific relations with an embodied viewer, which in turn determines responses to photographs. Material forms create very different embodied experiences of images and very different affective tones or theaters of consumption.


Choices are affective decisions that construct and  respond to the significances and consequences of things and the human relations with which they are associated.

It is, Miller argues, often when objects are assumed to be trivial and not to matter, that they are most powerful and effective as social forces.

It is only in relation to materiality that we can address the actual contexts in which the objects are meant to mean.

Even the most pragmatically engendered materialities, such as photograph frames and albums, come to have meaning through habitual reiterations of engagement with them.

Writing about photography has concentrated almost exclusively on establishing an artistic canon with a chronological pantheon, on technical advances, or, in recent analytical approaches, the social and ideological construction of the image.


[discussion of approaches to photograph/art history]


[Photography’s] technology is seen as an end in itself rather than the producer of social salient objects.


although […] writing on representation did bring insights into the possibility that photographs move through space and time, it largely buried these and did not initiate a thorough ongoing investigation into the lives that photographs lead after their initial point of inception. However, writing on representation, because it privileged the body and the embodied eye, did pave the way for an approach to photography that acknowledges that it offers a diverse range of body-related engagements.

[discuss Durand and Benjamin]


[Hart & Edwards write that] the materiality of photographs has always had a subliminal presence in writing about photographs.


Presentational forms equally reflect specific intent in the use and value of the photographs they wmbed, to the extent that the objects that embed photographs are in many cases meaningless without their photographs; for instance, empty frames or albums. […] display functions not only to make the thing visible but make it more visible in certain ways.

[Albums] have performative qualities […] their materiality dictates the embodied conditions of viewing, literally performing the images in certain ways. [gives examples of large presentational albums and small intimate ones]

Manypresentational forms have a skewomorphic quality referring to other objects with precise social meanings and functions. Albums are made to look like precious books, religious books, such as Victorian albums with heavy embossed covers with gold tooling and gold edged pages that are closed with metal clasps, clearly a refetence to medieval devotional books, the carte de visite album becoming a form of secular Bible.


It is the materiality of people’s photographs that make them ‘their own’.

Even in the digital age, when the materiality of many images evaporates into a series of electronic pulses, the desire for the material object remains, as digitally produced photographs are selected for printing […]

Even in the digital world these material decisions are integral to the social saliency of the photograph.

Acknowledging the material makes the act of viewing more complex and more difficult, as the act of viewing cannot any longer be processed in the same way.

An approach that acknowledges the centrality of materiality allows one to look at and use images as socially salient objects, as active and reciprocal rather than simply implications of authority, control and passive consumption on the one hand, or of aesthetic discourses and the supremacy of individual vision on the other.