Vernacular Photographies


Batchen, Geoffrey. ‘Vernacular Photographies’ Each wild idea: writing, photography, history (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT, 2002) 56-80


[Batchen describes] what has always been excluded from photography’s history: ordinary photographs  […] the photographs that preoccupy the home and the heart but rarely the museum or the academy.

[Batchen describes reasons why vernacular photographs were written out of history (except 19th and early 20th) – 1: anonymous 2. commercial 3. working class 4. amateur 5. collective]


In short, vernaculars are photography’s parergon, the part of its history that has been pushed to the margins (or beyond them to oblivion) precisely in order to delimit what is and is not proper to this history’s enterprise.

[Derrida on Kant]

[Photography’s historians] have no choice but to ignore the vernacular photograph because to deal with it directly would be to reveal the shallow artifice of their historical judgement, and of the notion of the artwork on which it is based.


As a parergon, vernacular photography is the absent presence that determines its medium’s historical and physical identity; it is the thing that decides what proper photography is not.

[…] vernaculars insist there are many photographies, not just one, indicating a need for an equally variegated array of historical methods and rhetorics. In other words, vernacular photographies demand the invention of suitably vernacular histories.


[Batchen discusses morphology and photographs]

In order to see what a photograph is of, we must first repress our consciousness of what a photograph is.

[…] vernacular photo objects can be read not only as sensual and creative artifacts but also as thoughtful, even provocative meditations on the nature of photography in general.


[Batchen discusses the daguerrotype]

[Viewing a daguerrotype] we are made to behold the thingness of the visual – its thickness, the tooth of its grain – even as we simultaneously encounter the visuality of the tactile – its look, the piercing force of its perception.

[Batchen discusses indexicality and emphasise the photograph as being touched by what it photographs]

[…] it is surely this combination of the haptic and the visual, this entanglement of both touch and sight, that makes photography so compelling a medium. Compelling, but also strangely paradoxical. As Roland Barthes has suggested, ‘Touch is the most demystifying of the senses, unlike sight, which is the most magical.’ [mythologies]


[Discussing tin-type portraits -] part photograph, part painting, part etching, part sculpure.

The epistomological presence of the photograph is made all the stronger by its perceptual absence. These images, so simple at first glance, actually exploit and complex form of palimpsest. As Derrida might put it, they offer ‘an erasure which allows what it obliterates to be read.’


[Albums and bibles: religeous connotations]

Even the covers of modern, plastic photo albums retain visual hints of this surface tactility, perhaps a memory of the fact that all illustrated books are decendants of medieval liturgical manuscripts and heavily worked and jewelled bibles.

[Some of these albums] open to reveal convenient home altars, once again blurring the distinction between photography’s secular and spiritual capacities.

[In touching and handling photo albums] we put the photograph back in motion, both literally in an arc through space an in a more abstract, cinematic sense as well.


[Batchen discusses Barthes and idea of the monument]

Where much photography seeks to repress its own existance in favor of the image it conveys, vernaculars have presence, both physical and conceptual.


Apart from the stress on the dimensionality of the photograph, they also frequently collapse any distinction between the body of the viewer and that of the object, each being made to function as an extension of the other. They produce what Barthes might have called a ‘writerly’ photography, a photography that insists on the cultural density of photographic meaning and assumes the active involvement of the viewer as interpretive agent.

Actually, vernacular photographs tantalize precisely by proffering the rhetoric of a transparency to truth and then problematizing it, en effect inscribing the writerly and the readerly in the same perceptual experience.

Although the photograph is obviously an important element of the way they all work, these objects are less about conveying truthful information about their subjects than they are about enacting certain social and cultural rituals through morphological design and object-audience interaction.


[Batchen discusses new ways to approach photography to encompass the vernacular. He suggests] a historical version of Barthes Camera Lucida [or Foucault’s] archeological approach to historical analysis.


[Batchen promotes the methods of studying Material Culture except where it aims to discover the true identity of objects which he says is not possible in vernacular photography]

[Batchen talks about Becoming (again) and cites Stuart Hall]

Any study of vernacular photographies must of course trace the presence of the past, but as an erasure (an absent presence fissured through and through by differences and contradictions) motivating the object in the present.

A vernacular history of photography must learn to negotiate the dynamic play of being and becoming that Hall  describes, for both itself and the objects it chooses to discuss.


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