Photography and the Geographical Imagination


Schwartz, Joan M; Ryan, James R. ‘Photography and the Geographical Imagination’ Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination ed. by Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan (London: I.B.Taurus, 2003) 1-18


More than one hundred and fifty years later – despite ongoing and unresolved debates over the status of photography as a fine art and over the role of photography in the relationship between vision and modernity, and despite profound changes in imaging technologies – photography remains a powerful tool in our engagement with the world around us. Through photographs, we see, we remember, we imagine: we ‘picture place’.


The world ‘made familiar’ through photographs was changing rapidly under the banner of progress.

In particular, the annihilation of space and time was a popular theme that linked photographs to other examples of mechanical genius as an agent of spatial and temporal collapse. ‘Space and time have ceased to exist’, wrote Theophile Gautier in 1858.


Initial emphasis on the realism and truthfulness of photography effectively masked the subjectivity inherent in the decision of what to record, from what angle and when – contingent, of course, upon the limitations of existing technology – and likewise veiled the power of photography to mediate the human encounter with people and place.

In the failure, or indeed refusal, to acknowledge selectivity and subjectivity in the process of picturing place, in the choice of what was deemed correct, ideal, historical or ‘true’, the situatedness of human decision-making became naturalized within the practices of photograph production, circulation and consumption, allowing photographs to enter seamlessly into the relationship between observer and material reality. There, they became the functioning tool of the geographical imagination’, informing and mediating engagement with the physical and human world.

[In recent year] a variety of studies have investigated the ‘ways of seeing’ that structure and represent geographical practices, languages and ideas. The concept of landscape, for example, has been shown to be a ‘way of seeing’ that developed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in conjunction with Renaissance techniques of linear perspective and mercantile capitalism.


This [recent] critical concern with photography in geography is certainly a welcome development, albeit, it may be argued, a surprisingly late one within a discipline that has long been conceptually and practically dependant upon technologies of the visual.


The significance of photography in the construction of notions of space and place, landscape and identity may be found at a range of scales, from the sites and sights of popular local urban memory to the image and symbol of the whole earth from space.


However, the meanings of such photographs of local landscapes or global panoramas are neither obvious nor fixed. Studies of the use of photography in the construction of symbolic landscapes of national identity, cultural difference and imperial order show further how the meanings of photographs, though bound up with myriad forms of power, are also continually negotiated.

The advent of photography opened up new worlds to nineteenth century viewers, enabling them to visualize – with unprecedented accuracy and ease – themselves, their families, their immediate surroundings, their wider communities and the world beyond their doorstep. And, as never before, photographs made the past a palpable part of the present.


A powerful means of ‘picturing place’, both literally and figuratively, they have participated actively in the making and dissemination of geographical knowledge. These same images, now preserved across a range of social spaces, from the pages of family albums to the holdings of national archives, continue to influence our notions of space and place, landscape and identity, history and memory.


[…] optical precision is no guarantee of documentary objectivity: photographs have to be understood as records of visual facts and as sites  where those visual facts are invested with, and generate, meaning.

Thus photographs are no simply looked at, but are read, deciphered and, therefore, open to a range of interpretations.

Unidentified, unattributed or removed from their original documentary universe or narrative sequence – either permanently or temporarily by institutional preservation practices – photographs often resist efforts to ascertain authorial intent or intended audience, and cannot be made to yield their original messages.


[…] it is essential to recognise photographs as profoundly material objects with their own forms of material culture and history.

Made practicable at a time vision and knowledge came to be inextricably linked, the photograph offered a means of observing, describing, studying, ordering, classifying and, thereby, knowing the world. The rhetoric of transparency and truth that came to surround the photograph enabled it to take up a position between observer and material reality.

There, ‘photographic seeing’ became a surrogate for first hand observation.


Photography (literally ‘light-writing’), of course, share with geography (literally ‘earth-writing’) a root in the Greek graphos. Thus, if explicitly photographs are visual images, then implicitly they are also the material residue of an act of communication. The latter notion emphasizes photography as an act of representation or, in reference to its etymological origins, an act of writing, thus bringing to the fore issues of authorship and authority, authenticity and audience.

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