Into the Archive: On the Materiality of Photographs

An Online Exhibition of the BMBF-Project “Photo-Objects. Photographs as (Research) Objects in Archaeology, Ethnology and Art History”

From 14 November 2016 the Online Exhibition “Into the Archive: On the Materiality of Photographs” is showcasing 96 photographs from the holdings of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Humboldt-Universität in Berlin, and the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut.

Photographs are not only reproductions of whatever is represented in them, but also three-dimensional material objects, which are handled, used and subject to processes of wear and tear. From a single model various photo-objects can be created, including not only negatives, contact sheets and photoprints, but also drawings and prints in books. Equally heterogeneous are the circumstances in which they are conserved and the networks in which they move. Photographs, whether analog or digital, circulate in archives, museums, research institutes, universities and private collections. They traverse social, political, cultural and historical contexts and are consequently received and used in very different ways.

This is the point of view chosen for the current Online Exhibition. It presents in six sections (“Multiple Originals”, “Work on Photo-Objects”, “Circulation”, “People in Pictures”, “Types and Typologies”, “On the Margins of the Archive”) four photo-archives and their collections: the archive of the Antikensammlung of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz with a photographic documentation of the archaeological campaigns in Magnesia on the Maeander and Pergamon; the Sammlung Fotografie of the Kunstbibliothek of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz with two groups of architectural photographs dating to around 1900; the Hahne-Niehoff photo-archive on folklore of the Institut für Europäische Ethnologie at the Humboldt-University in Berlin; and the Photothek of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut with its applied arts section.

Already in the nineteenth century photographs were used as tools of scientific research and incorporated in photographic collections and archives. Here they were mounted on cardboards, captioned, annotated, trimmed, ordered, stamped and classified. Photographs and photographic archives have never been neutral or objective. Only by their processing were they turned into (scientifically) utilizable images. As such they passed through various hands, formats, institutions and networks. They were used, for example, for documentation and communication, or also as illustrations for publications. Photographs are thus man-made, social and movable objects and just for this reason especially expressive. Gaining an understanding not only of the materiality of photographs, but also of their status as historically and socially determined objects, has also led to attention being focused on marginal photo-objects, which often evade scientific scrutiny in archives: photos that are considered unclassifiable – over-exposed or out-of-focus, fragmentary or defective images, or photos labelled simply as “miscellaneous” or “curiosa”. So the Online Exhibition shows not only photos exemplifying the core holdings of the collections presented here, but also their apparent marginalia. Only when photographs are taken seriously as material objects, do they reveal all their epistemological potential as bearers and creators of knowledge. For each photo-object has its own unique biography, which yields information not only about the photograph itself, but also about the processes in which it is involved and by which it has been shaped.

The Online Exhibition “Into the Archive: On the Materiality of Photographs” gives a current insight into the work of the cooperative project sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research “Photo-objects. Photographs as (Research) Objects in Archaeology, Ethnology and Art History”, in which the four institutions represented in this exhibitions are working together. The project links methodological approaches to “material culture” with a comparative perspective: photo-objects are compared as three-dimensional, material artefacts, while at the same time the focus is placed on their scientific use in the disciplines of archaeology, ethnology and art history. Not least the aim of the project is to deconstruct the claimed neutrality of documentary photographs and photo-archives.

Concept and texts: Julia Bärnighausen, Stefanie Klamm, Franka Schneider, Petra Wodtke

Coordination: Julia Bärnighausen, Almut Goldhahn


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