Making Meaning


Willumson, Glenn. ‘Making Meaning: Displaced materiality in the library and art museum’ Photographs Objects Histories: On the materiality of images ed. by Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart (London: Routledge, 2004) 62-80


Although they are initially treasured for their ability to reproduce a person, an event or a location, the passage of time is not kind to photographs. As connection is lost and memory fades, photographs are quickly stored in boxes and albums.They are moved to attics and basements until, eventually, they become merely discarded objects.

[…] a small fraction is judged to be of high enough quality or great enough rarity to enter into the permanent collections of these cultural institutions. [libraries or art museums]

This movement and shifting from private to public, from commercial commodity to a confined social meaning and back to commodity on the art market, marks the photo-object.

Historically, even when attention is paid to the materiality of photographs, as is the case with the fine art print by the master photographer, it is submerged beneath the discourse of aesthetics.

Moving through time and accross our cultural horizon, manifesting themselves at different moments and in diverse places, photographs are marked by their trajectory. In using this term I am thinking not of the sharp straight lines of geometry, but of the incomplete, soft-edged outline of a vapour trail. This ephemeral trace is difficult to track in some places, more clear in others and obvious at its intersection with the object. It delinetaes not only the biography of the photograph but also the histories of the persons and places that house it.

Until recently, scholarship had been so dazzled by the luminescence of the image that it ignored the photograph’s physicality and the evanescent trail that it had left in its wake.


For most photographs, redemption or rejection comes not in the institutional locations of official culture but in the domestic setting of the home, that treasure trove of imagery.

[On photo albums] In these cultural artefacts, unlike others that will be discussed later, who produced the photograph is of less relevance than the creator of the object in which the photographs reside. The performance of thumbing through the photographs, selecting and sequencing, and gluing them into an album breaks the bond of the materiality of the photograph from its links in commerce and mass production. In choosing, sequencing, organising and captioning the photographs for the album, the person responsible transorms the meaning of selected images into an intensely individualistic exression.

Photographic albums transcend private, personalised circumstance when they are clearly marked by the traces of their owners and their practices.


[Describes D. M. Seaton’s photo albums]


With the death of the inspiration for the albums, Alice Seaton’s family lost their connection to the photographs and the personal memories that they contained. Consequently the albums again moved from one social space to another, becoming commodified examples of pictorial and cultural oddity.

Their purchase by the Getty Research Institute marked a new path for the artefacts, as public, rather than private, objects.


In the special collections of the library at the Getty Research Institute the Seaton albums  became new objects. From repositories of memory and personal connection, they are now valued as a ‘type’, representative of a genre, the personal travel album, and as a source of pictorial and linguistic information about Europe at the turn of the twentieth century.

[But] The albums are classified using an organisation model that tethers them to subject matter. For example, archivists noted each of the countries visited and were particularly interested in the volume devoted to the Paris Exposition of 1900 because of the significance of that event.

As the example of the Seaton albums suggested, artefacts are mobile objects that are embedded in particular social locations and are subject to strict organisational rules. Both the location of the object and the discipline under which it is arranged privilege certain aspects of its materiality, in this case informational content, while ignoring other possibilities, such as the interaction between image (photograph and map) and text as they are placed in the pages of the album. The transformation of the photo-object by an organising system has significant implications for its materiality, its meaning, its social effect and the way such objects have been assessed within the history of photography.

[discussion of stereographic cards]

[In the library] There the paired images are treated like exact duplicates and are collected, filed and conserved for the information contained in the photograph. This method of organisation and classification ignores the special material qualities of the stereograph, dictated by the intention to reproduce a three dimensional effect, and treats them in a way not dissimilar from books. By narrowly defining their interest in the stereograph, libraries ignore not only the aesthetic quality of the image but also the traces of historical trajectory.


[On a series of stereographs of  the Central Pacific Railroad]

Considering first the verso of these stereographs, one uncovers important historical clues with regard to their intended audience. These signs are easily overlooked when the photographic object is valued for the informational quality of the photograph alone. Here image and support are inseparable, constituting  a single object produced to fulfil a specific social function.


Disregarding the physical evidence of the printed cardboard on which the images were glued, the library reassembled the stereographs like book collections, into essentialising themes and subject headings: ‘Indians’, ‘Transportation’, ‘Landscape’, ‘Bridges’, ‘Portraits’, ‘Towns’ etc. This organisational model is rooted in the library’s concern for its contemporary audience and its familiarity with a text-based system of organisation. With its visitors in mind, the library ignored the physicality of the stereo-cards and transformed the stereographs into visual text rather than material culture, into subjects rather than objects.

Stereographs suit the library because libraries are first and foremost collecting institutions. They accumulate books, photographs and ephemera with the understanding that their primary purpose is to act as a repository of data.


Whereas the library exists to collect objects of informational importance, the museum is called upon to show objects of significant cultural value.


The traditional exhibition practice of matting and framing images behind glass effectively calls attention to the visual aesthetics of the large single photograph, but it cannot easily encompass the presentational demands of the stereograph, thus making it difficult for it to enter the gallery space of the museum.

[…] the privileging of the aesthetics of the image that is the basis for fine art museum exhibitions denies the body of the viewer, just as it denies the physicality of the object exhibited.

[On the exhibition of stereographs by Carleton Watkins]

Shown in the last room of the exhibition, the stereographic photographs were transformed into digital images that were viewed on computer screens through specially designed glasses.

Rather than providing insight into nineteenth century stereographic photography, this presentation mode served the traditional needs of the museum: the promotion of a decontextualised aesthetics that was divorced from the materiality of the object and the physical interaction of the viewer.

Within the imposed order of the exhibition the smallness of the stereographic cards enhanced to impressive size and aesthetic monumentality of the large images (38 x 51 cm). the selection of identical and similar locations in both stereographic and mammoth formats made even more evident this pronounced aesthetic difference.


Although important aspects of their materiality were denied, the stereographs none the less served to validate Watkins as a canonical photographer by establishing his versatility and the breadth of his artist oeuvre.


Despite the inclusion of ‘low cultural objects’ such as stereographs, the Watkins exhibition reasserted the notion of photographs as high-status commodities. It reproduced the material manifestations of ‘value’ through presentational form, juxtaposition and selection. These exhibition techniques called attention to the high art status of the finished print and masked the commercial status of the photographer in order to elevate him unproblematically into the canon of artistic practitioners. This mark of acceptance privileges one form of materiality, the cult of the fine art print by a great artist, but it ignores the historical framing evident in the photograph’s support and presentational format and consequentially rejects its history and its socio-cultural trajectory.

The museum acted in its role as explorer when it unveiled previously unknown or overlooked examples of the fine art aesthetics in photography. In the institutional history of photography, actions of this kind were of greatest importance during the 1930s and 1940s, a period in when photography struggled for recognition.

The 1970s witnessed an upsurge of museum interest in collecting photographs and with this shift, new cultural values in relation to photography. Museums began to offer assurance of photography’s status by refining the canon and articulating high and low forms of the medium.


[discussion of Carleton Watkins Pacific Coast]


The materiality of the album, and the reproduction of its narratives, required a physical connection to the viewer that was possible in the library, but was not available in the museum.

The art museum intentionally removes the body of the viewer and its accompanying tactility.

The museum cannot afford to pay attention to traces of the object’s history because it would distract from the photograph’s reception as a work of art in the current moment. Because it desires objects on to which curators and viewers can write their own stories, museums do not want object pre-inscribed by history.

The bound album is also problematic because its large numbers of photographs, regardless of their quality, remind visitors that photography is a reproductive medium and that its origins are in commerce.


[Beaument Newhall’s] exhibition Photography 1839-1937 and its associated publications codified a history of photography, within a practice rooted in contemporary art historical methodology. Based upon formal analysis, attention to the moment of production and a concern for the contemporary audience, this set of practices brought attention to the surface quality of the photograph. Although material quality defined the fine historical print, its ‘thingness’ was absorbed unarticulated into an aesthetic discourse. These criteria became the centrepiece for the collecting practice and the cultural ordering that were accepted for photography collections in United States art museums.


For a variety of social and economic reasons, the newly emerging wealthy class in the early twentieth century embraced collecting and museum philanthropy as its preferred social endeavour.

Following their supporters’ lead, art museums shifted their focus from eduction to collection development.


The idea of the ‘vintage print’ allows the museum to bridge a number of gaps in its aesthetic criteria. It highlights photogrpahy as a print-making process and thereby unites it with other accepted art practices, such as etching, lithography, engraving serigraphy and mezzotint, to name just a few. It also ties the exhibited print to the production of the negative.

This has two effects. On the one hand, it connects the museum object with an individual practitioner. […] This association allows the museum to do something else that is critical to the history of photography: establish a canon of master photographers.


[As art museums increasingly rely on state funding, not private support, they have been require to reach wider audiences.] As they approach these new audiences, however, museums are in a difficult position. Having collected the most rare and beautiful objects available, museums must now make their collections relevant to a constituency for whom these elite objects have little relevance.

Treating the photograph like an organic thing that has a history whose trajectory can be traced like a personal biography offers to the popular audience experiences that are familiar. Not only would museum objects be invested with a past, present and future, just like the visitors themselves, but such a practice would also unmask the role of the museum as producer of socially relevant artifacts.


The recognition that cultural evaluation is contingent opens up new directions for thinking about photographs – pathways in which the material evidence of the image, its support and its presentational mode can serve as a beacon to the underappreciated social and cultural role that photography has played historically, and that it continues to play today.

While past efforts have saved for future generations countless examples of pristine and beautiful photographs, they have also served to structure cultural values and social relations.

[A] new evaluation will take into account a fresh set of criteria, with the materiality of the photograph and its trajectory over time as the primary consideration for inclusion. It will bring renewed attention to overlooked presentational forms such as the photographic album and the stereograph and their inherent and inseparable ‘thingness’. With the passage of time, this approach will become central to new formations of photographic collections and new articulations of photographic history.

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