On the 18th and 19th June, I attended the Photographic History Research Centre Annual Conference at De Montfort University in Leicester. The theme for the conference was ‘Material Practices of Visual Culture’ and featured two keynotes from James Ryan and Ludmilla Jordanova; a broad range of papers from both UK and international speakers; a display from the De Montfort University Special Collections; and an artists’ talk from Toby Cornish and Johannes Braun. In this blog post, I’ll be detailing some of my highlights from the conference.
The first keynote of the conference was given by Ludmilla Jordanova, who spoke on ‘Photography in Historical Practice’. She highlighted the many different levels of material practice featured in photography, and its capacity as a material object to facilitate the making of visual history. Photographs can therefore be read and described as aesthetic and historical practice. Using the Sudan Collection at the University of Durham – particularly the photographs taken by J F E Bloss – Jordanova discussed a number of issues relating to the material practice of photography. In particular, she asked whether the Bloss photographs were purely descriptive or whether they had artistic merit, and how the context of each photograph influences our reading of it today.
I found Donna West Brett’s paper on ‘The Stasi Archive as Visual and Material History’ absolutely fascinating. For me, the images from the Stasi Archive raised questions of anonymity, surveillance, and the relationship between the individual and the state in both the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. The images used in this talk were taken as surveillance in the DDR for a very specific and restrictive state-sanctioned audience. Being photographs produced by a state security service, this raises questions about what photographs really tell us about events – and what do photographs leave out? There were interesting links with Elizabeth Edward’s work on photography and material culture and Ariella Azoulay’s notion of the ‘social contract’ of photography.
Another highlight from the first day of the conference was James Opp’s paper on ‘Archives, Exhibits, and the Modern Department Store: Visual Histories and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Tercentenary’. Coming from the University of Sussex, which holds the Mass Observation Archive in its special collections over at The Keep, it was amazing to see how exhibitions and department stores in Canada were photographed, and compare this to what I’d seen from Mass Obs. Particularly focussing on the tercentenary exhibition run by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1970, the paper explored how photographs could be used as a ‘permanent’ record of history, and how they could be vehicles for meaning in a multi-sensory exhibition.
It was also fantastic to hear Geoff Belknap from the National Science and Media Museum speak on ‘Rationalizing Photography in the National Science and Media Museum’. Running through the history of collecting at the National Science and Media Museum provided an opportunity to explore what the boundaries of collecting photography at a national museum can be. There seems to be a boundary between historic necessity and what audiences want to see, as well as a question of how museums – at all levels – can integrate the many different parts of photographic history into their broader collections.
Before attending the conference, I was particularly looking forward to James Ryan’s keynote on ‘Rock, Paper, Metal: Materials and Vision in Early British photography’. I’ve read a lot of his work as part of my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees so it was a pleasure to hear him speak. His paper focussed on the materiality of Victorian photography, highlighting the position of the Victorian photograph as a ‘tricky object’ and the new materialisms seen in contemporary art historical writing on photography.
The display of items from the De Montfort University Special Collections was also fantastic to see – of particular interest to me was the magic lantern slide depicting a Japanese scene.
These are just a few of my highlights from a fascinating and stimulating conference; I certainly left with much to consider and think about further. (I also left with a significant number of additions to my tbr list!) Thanks so much to the organisers of the conference at the PHRC and De Montfort University, and of course to all the fantastic speakers.
More to follow about my exploration of the city prior to the conference…