Conservation and Management of Photography (1)

Seminar-Workshop on Asia-Pacific Forum for Library and Achives Management Training
Bangalore, India, UTC- June 1-30, 2004

Week 3: Conservation and Management of Photography (1)

Paul Jenkins
Hon. Lecturer in Non-Western History
University of Basel

1. Introductory theses

1. In the course of the last 20 years historical photographs have been re-discovered in the West as a resource for teaching at all levels, and for research of many kinds.
Before this photographs had been largely abandoned when they got old, were forgotten and typically lay in remote cupboards in serious disorder.
So we archivists are playing a key role in upgrading this newly-discovered resource and making it available for many kinds of users. But we need to understand what this rediscovery means, so that our administration of photographic holdings contributes to the innovations which are happening, rather than holding them up.

2. In the West photographs were mostly used, in the past, merely as UP-TO-DATE ILLUSTRATIONS OF TRUTHS EXPRESSED IN WORDS.

Pictures didn’t challenge texts, they confirmed them.

And most people wanted to use the most up-to-date photographs.They wanted to use the technically most perfect images. They wanted to show things as near to the present-day as they could. (This especially applied to missionary societies in Europe and North America, concerned with urgent needs now, now, now! Old out-or-date photographs fell into limbo.)

3. Nowadays photographs PLAY A STRONGER, MORE LEADING ROLE in teaching, research and the media. Here are some attempts to define this new situation – which is most correct, I wonder?

- there is a new “partnership” between words and photographs in which photographs raise questions, make suggestions, help to create quite new analyses of the past.

- photographs can have an independent message no longer dependent on the words (documentation) which accompany them

- there is a new “dialogue” between words and photographs in which the words may send us to look at the photographs for clarification, and the photographs may send us to look at the words with questions which they inspire. So photographs may make us look at verbal texts with fresh eyes. They may make us conscious of gaps in the information offered by verbal texts which we had not noticed before.

4. Translating this development into a broad view of research on history:

A lot of people are doing research nowadays on the History of Photography: the activity of taking and producing and using/selling photographs has come to be seen as a major theme in its own right in modern history.

Many historians are also looking at Photographs as sources for research in many different topics. Anyone nowadays working on any theme in social history since 1839 has to pay careful attention to the question whether historical photographs (“Visual sources”) may exist relevant to his or her work – and he or she must be aware that photographs can transform his or her “view” of the past.

5 The situation today is not quite simple, however. If historians and social scientists have new ways of reading old photographs, modern journalism goes on looking for photographs which dramatically illustrate what the news texts say – it looks for “slap in the face” photos, photographs which are totally unambiguous in their impact on the spectator.
Historians and social scientists may even, as a result, want to think of “schools for seeing” in which careful and reflective “reading” of old photographs helps people to be less gullible in their own personal interpretations of photographs. Then they can do their own reflective “reading” of the contemporary images we constantly see in the press and on TV and come to conclusions other than those the picture editor intended.

6. We, of course, are resting on the “East-West Divan” in this workshop ..... I started this section (para 2) by writing about the rediscovery of historical photographs “in the West”. It is important for Asian archivists to understand what this major intellectual happening is all about, since it is part of the impact of globalisation that new ideas in the West influence intellectuals all over the world, and may turn up in quite remote theological seminaries in Asia or Africa.

But it is also important to recognise that people in different cultures have different ways of looking at photographs and interpreting them. They have different wishes and desires when being photographed.

The kind of photographs which will come together in an Asian church archive will no doubt be influenced by both sides – photography from the West, and indigenous photography from the immediate environment. And everyone has to think out for themselves, in his or her specific situation, what that means in practice.

PJ Basel 8.6.2004


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