Picturing Things: Photography as Material Culture


Fall 2012


5th Floor Classroom


Aaron Glass,

Catherine Whalen

Although photography is usually approached as a visual medium of image production and reproduction, photographs are also objects with their own unique material properties. They not only depict the material world, they also help constitute it. As a particular type of image/object, photographs have specific modes of production, circulation, and consumption, and have scholarly potential beyond critiques of “representation” alone. This course surveys the history, theory and methods of treating photography as material culture, focusing on materiality and the evidentiary potential of the photographic image as object. We’ll begin with the early history of diverse photographic technologies and foundational readings on photographic practice. Chronological and topical sections will cover such issues as Victorian portraiture, corporeality and biography; seriality, narrative and performance; the photographic archive as index, record and system; museological contexts for photography of/as fine art or ethnography; colonialism and the imaging of race and ethnicity; non-western engagement with the medium; the snapshot, tourism and amateur photography; the still and moving image in early cinema; the rise and propagation of documentary photography; the generation of iconic images; advertizing, popular culture and fashion; architectural photography; and digital imaging and the challenge of dematerialization. Along the way, we will pay close attention to the dynamics of power, genre and ethics across gender, class, racial, cultural and national lines. Through critical discussion of texts, close examination (and production) of photographic objects, in-class presentations and fieldtrips, this seminar course will help prepare students to engage with the photographic object as a resource for historical scholarship and as a cultural product in its own right. 3 credits.