Will the Real History of Photography Please Stand Up?
Photographic History and Education in Ireland
by Justin Carville
Let's begin with a story on the origins of photography. It is a story that most readers will be familiar with and it goes something like this: on the 7th January 1839, François Jean Dominique Arago, Director of the Paris Observatory, permanent secretary and member of the French Académie des Sciences and leader of the left wing Republican opposition in the Chambre des Députés, walked into a meeting of the Académie des Sciences and read a statement to the waiting Académie members outlining the details of Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre's invention which was to later bear his name. The exact details of Arago's speech are not of much relevance to the concerns of this article but as we might expect it detailed the various advantages Daguerre's process could bring to the sciences and arts in France and the rest of the world. It is a story that is found in almost every historical account of photography from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as most pamphlets, brochures and exhibition catalogues on nineteenth century photography.
This story of photography's origins is usually accompanied by the obligatory flashback to Nicéphore Niépce's Heliograph of an open window Le Gras in 1826 and a cursory glance at the case of the French civil servant Hippolyte Bayard who developed a paper based photographic process in early 1839, before going on to recount William Henry Fox Talbot's experiments which resulted in his Photogenic Drawings of 1835 and his subsequent development of the Calotype. There are of course other figures and events which feature in various accounts of this story. Thomas Wedgwood and Sir Humphry Davy's experiments of 1802 and the pivotal role of Sir John Herschel in the nomenclature of photography have both found their way into histories of photography but their role here is merely a distraction to the concerns of this particular story of photography's histories. What is of concern to this article, is the near universality of this story of the origins of photography and its underpinning of the teaching of the history of photography, as it is taught at all, in educational art institutions.
The story of photography's invention has for some time now been questioned by a number of the discipline's historians. Indeed one of the paradoxes of the proclamation of photography's death, due to the rise of digital imaging during the closing decades of the twentieth century, has been the re-emergence of an interest in its birth. Deconstructionist historians, most notably Geoffrey Batchen, have been sifting through the remnants of the history of photography's birth to examine the discourse of photography by those whom Batchen terms the proto-photographers. That is to say, those select group of individuals who aspired to some sort of photographic like reproductive practice before photography's invention. There have however, been a succession of claimants to the precise course of the pre-history of photography for over a century. The Frenchman Victor Fouque sought to re-instate Niépce into the story of the invention of photography as early as 1867, emotively titling his work The Truth Concerning the Invention of Photography. Historical scholarship by Heinrich Schwarz in 1949 paved the way for curator and Director of MoMA's Photography Department Peter Galassi, to put together a show which attempted to link photography's invention with Western pictorial practices in the MoMA sponsored exhibition Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography in 1981.
The various merits and shortcomings of these particular claims are open to debate depending on which side of the political and academic fence you sit on. All theoretical arguments on photography are after all fallible and at times over-determined, but they contribute and open up new avenues of inquiry within photographic histiography. What is interesting about the examples above are the correlations they have with the three dominant positions adopted for the teaching of the history of photography in Ireland. Although the history of photography tends to be part of a broader art history/media studies programme in educational institutions three main methodologies can be identified in its teaching. Firstly as a history of technologies of photography focusing on the invention of processes and equipment which, as one historian has remarked, is rather like teaching the history of painting through the brush. Secondly as an art history of the photographic image, that is to say a history which is based on a canon of photographers, images and movements based on aesthetic judgment and connoisseurship. Lastly photography is examined as just one type of media text among many as part of a media/cultural studies programme revolving around issues of representation and ideology. It is not the aim of this article to bring these three pedagogical practices to task, to ask the real history of photography to please stand up. Rather I wish to draw out some of the shortcomings of using these models for the teaching of a history of photography in art education, particularly in relation to the formulation of a history of Irish photography.
Before addressing the specificities of these shortcomings however, it is necessary to briefly return to the story on photography's origins recounted above. One of the vagaries of histories of photography, especially those that are modelled on art historical scholarship, is the role of the invention of photography story in their narrative. In these histories we find a brief dedicated chapter on the hard facts of photography's invention, before an account of the popularity of photographic portraiture and the inevitable rise of art photography among the mid-Victorian amateurs. A quick survey of the chapter titles of Beaumont Newhall's The History of Photography and Naomi Rossenblum's A World History of Photography shows the extent of this conformity to chronicling photography's past. The question that arises then, is why should those histories modelled on connoisseurship and the construction of a canon of excellence in photographic image making, be at such pains to give a dispassionate account of photography's invention? The reason lies in art historical scholarship's placing of a value on photography that precludes it from any connection with the social world. Photography is placed in a historical cocoon, detached from the socio-economic and political world that contributed to the invention, production and distribution of photography throughout the one hundred and sixty odd years of its existence. What these histories fail to acknowledge is that the announcement of Daguerre's invention is a story that is as much about the political aspirations of Arago as it is about the arrival of a new method of mechanical reproduction. As a celebrated stage designer and inventor of the diorama, Daguerre and the announcement of his new invention was to prove a useful political weapon for the egalitarian ideals of Arago and his fellow Republicans. The story of photography's origins is thus a story that is more about national aspiritations, the cult of celebrity, capital and the populist politics of the times than it is about the individual inventors of photographic processes. Social and political issues that art historical scholarship attempts to exclude from photography's past.
What the art historically informed accounts of photography fail to grasp, is that while some photographs lay claims to be art, not all photography history is art history. How then does this discrepancy relate to the teaching of the history of photography in art education, particularly in relation to Ireland? To address this I want to examine the three pedagogical models outlined above.
The art historical model is relatively rare in photography education in Ireland. Apart from contemporary photographic practices and a few notable aristocratic Victorian amateurs such as Lord and Lady Rosse, there have been few attempts to construct a historical canon of Irish photography. There is however one example worth briefly discussing, the Jesuit priest Father Browne. Let there be no mistake, the generic categorisation of the Father Browne collection, The Genius of Father Browne, Father Browne's Woodland Photographs, Father Browne's Cork etc. are standard categories of archive, museum and art photography canons. Think of the categorisation of the French photographer Eugene Atget's vast body of work by MoMA, Atget's Trees, Atget's Paris, The Work of Atget. These are all sub-categories of the photographer's oeuvre that endeavour to place the photographer as the authorial voice of their work, to unite the photographer and their work to such an extent that history interprets the work as inseparable from the man.
This leaves some considerable questions on the work of Father Browne unanswered. Instead of consenting to the genius of Father Browne, questions should be asked of the role of the collection in presenting an image of Ireland from the privileged position of the clergy during the early years of the foundation of the Irish state. The Father Browne collection's meteoric rise in the public's imagination is inseparable from the material forces that have led to its production and successful distribution through the numerous volumes of his work published during the last twenty years. It is clear that any historical project involving a body of work such as the Father Browne collection requires educators to teach students to examine the intersections of travel, representation and the role of the religious orders in the everyday social and cultural activities of the country.
The history of photography through the invention or discovery of technical and chemical process is less problematic in the sense that the teaching of the history of photography through this pedagogical method is relatively scarce. However it did form the backbone of photography history education on photography courses of a number of institutes of technology until only recently. Ireland has not been without its contributors to the scientific and technological advancement of photography. John Joly's experimentation with colour photography, leading to his 1894 patent of a single-image colour transparency process, stands out as Ireland's most significant contribution to the science of photographic image making. Significant and thorough research has already been carried out on Joly's experimentation with photography throughout his career in the Physics Department at Trinity College Dublin. Future research on the science of photography could however learn from recent scholarship on the history of science and technology in Ireland. Research on natural history, scientific and technological development in Ireland has been grounded in the social and cultural contexts of scientific development and education. If a history of the science of photography is to form part of photography history education in this country it needs to take account of the administrative and political decisions affecting those institutions that sponsored scientific research throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Changes to the funding of scientific research in organisations such as the Royal Dublin Society brought about by the 1877 Dublin Science and Art Museum Act, switched administrative control of the sciences and arts from Dublin to Westminster. The affects of such colonial administrative policies on science and technology need to be a core feature of any teaching of a scientific history of photography.
The last model outlined above, the photograph as a media text in cultural studies programmes, is probably the most common form of teaching a history of the photographic image in art institutions in Ireland. Here the focus is more on issues of representation than on the history of photographic processes or movements. Cultural studies and the Humanities in general have brought about a significant rethink of photographic histiography over the last thirty years. Photographic theory has come to play a major role in academic programmes of photography courses in Ireland during the last five years in particular.
There are however a few points that need to be made in relation to the examination of Irish photography in media and cultural studies courses. I am referring in particular to the examination of representations of Ireland and the Irish throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that purport to be ethnological or anthropological studies. The pioneering Foucauldian work of John Tagg has come to influence similar studies of the representation of the objectified and disenfranchised subjects of the photographer's gaze. There is a danger that cultural studies programmes here will simply transfer the Foucault based model to the study of similar representations in Ireland. The over-determined use of Tagg's work in cultural studies programmes dealing with photographic representation could, to borrow his title, become a burden to the development of a history of photography in art education in Ireland. Not all representations of the poor and the working classes render the subject passive and silent, unable to present themselves before the camera. Outside of the asylum, the prison and the studio these groups of individuals are capable of producing signs of their own making.
The economies of exchange of photographic representation are such that they can be as much about emancipation of the subject as their subjugation. Cultural studies programmes need to take account of the different systems of interpretation of photographic imagery in their examination of historical representations of Ireland and the Irish. Educators need to develop a theorisation of the photographic image that takes account of the various social and class structures involved in photographic representations of Ireland by the Irish themselves, as well as the colonial tourist, scientist and anthropologist.
In briefly examining these three models of photographic history in Irish art education, I am not proposing that any particular history of photography be favoured over another. What is clear however is that photography's ubiquity necessitates a history of photography that incorporates everything and excludes nothing. Unlike the art historical model, a history of photography needs to be inclusive rather than exclusive. In the formulation of a history of Irish photography in education, models need to be developed from within Irish historical and visual culture scholarship rather than reverting to historicism, merely borrowing existing historical methodologies from the rest of the Western world. What is needed is sociology of photography in Ireland. An interdisciplinary model that takes account of the institutional and administrative influences on representative practices in the arts and sciences, as well as the contesting material forces that have had an affect on the production, distribution and reception of the photographic image. To locate photography in the polarised camps of Romantic and positivist conceptions of photographic history, fails to grasp that photography is torn between the two. Photography in Ireland is clearly caught in the tensions between art and science, culture and nature, capitalism and altruism. To implement a history of photography in art education, educators need to chart the paths that bind photography to social life in Ireland before we can ask the real history of photography to please stand up.