Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies

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Rebecca Repper

The University of Western Australia

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The ‘Public’ Life of Photographs

Thierry Gervais (ed.), The ‘Public’ Life of Photographs, RIC Books: Critical Ideas, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2017; pp: 300; RRP US$35.00 Hardback.

The ‘Public’ Life of Photographs, edited by Thierry Gervais, is the first edition of the newseries RIC Books produced by the Ryerson Image Centre of Toronto ( The purpose of the series is to explore the histories, practices, and reception of the medium and process of photography. This premier volume, ‘Critical Ideas’, brings together wide-ranging critiques on the reception of photographic images through an understanding of their context of use. The book itself, in hardback, is expertly crafted towards emphasising the visual subject of the volume, and detailed captions provide welcome insight into the breadth of formats of the source material.

The content is split into three parts: ‘Photography as Mass Culture’,‘Photography as Visual News’, and ‘Photography as Art’. These themes touch on perhaps the top three influences on photography in the twentieth century: mass production, the news cycle, and its use and acceptance in the art sector. Through these subjects the authors comment on the broad shift in our interaction with photography and photographs, from the intimate and immediate, to the public and mass produced.

The papers in the volume respect the multitudinous roles photographic images came into during the nineteenth century. The reader is presented with a myriad of case studies that present lenses through which the visually rich material output of photography is read. In this way, the volume also addresses the various media the photographic image might pass through as it is presented to the public. The three areas of ‘Mass Culture’, ‘Visual News’ and ‘Art’ are effective fora to find both broad correlations and differences in the use and reception of photographs.

Photographs’ polymorphic qualities are highlighted from the outset in Thierry Gervais’ introduction through the example of Black Star Agency’s images of the Birmingham Alabama Civil Rights protests. The idea of ‘image hybridity’ is expanded in the first section ‘Photography as Mass Culture’. Joel Snyder’s paper provides a valuable and approachable exploration of photography’s relationship with reproducibility, with strong reference to historical and theoretical influences. Geoffrey Batchen’s paper explores reproducibility through tracing image ‘dispersals’ of the nineteenth century, specifically how the derived image can become far divorced from its photographic inception, which may be lost entirely. Vincent Lavoie’s paper is an interesting case study in photograph use in forensic and criminal law. At first jarring after the more reflective and historical papers of Snyder and Batchen, the study provides an approachable modern case study through which to consider the broader theoretical discussion of photographs ‘demonstrative’ or evidential value, and invokes reflections of the photographic theory of John Tagg and Allan Sekula.

The second section of ‘Photographs as Visual News’ follows three case studies that place photographs into the public sphere as primarily visual accompaniment for information. Mary Panzer’s study of Romana Javitz’s driving mentality and work involved in building the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection is fascinating reading both as career biography and as a way of thinking about photographs ‘atwork’. Olivier Lugon’s study focuses on the role of photographs in the evolution of exhibition in the mid-twentieth century, focusing on its qualities as an infinitely reproducible and dematerialised resource. André Cunthert’s paper on Visual Journalism rounds out the section beautifully with a study of the effect of photographs and visual literacy as used by the media to infer meaning.

The final section, ‘Photographs as Art’, opens with a paper by Nathalie Boulouch on the slow acceptance of colour photography in the art sector. The paper highlights some of the ingrained mentalities that photographic practitioners have to overcome, and some of the medium’s unique demands as an exhibition item. Boulouch’s discussion also provides a welcome expansion of thinking about photographs as ‘art’ and ‘exhibit’ that were not overly explored in Olivier Lugon’s paper on exhibition. Heather Diack’s paper ‘Indecisive Moments’ explores how photographic art can contradict traditional artistic notions of the unique and original,with curation or composition in series or multiples. This paper compliments some of the earlier papers in the volume, especially Gervais’ introduction and Batchen’s tracing of reproductions. The volume ends by returning to the material encounter with photographic objects in the museum context, specifically engaging with assumptions around preservation, and personal and public access to and appreciation of ‘collections’.

The ‘Public’ Life of Photographs with its attractive design and well-chosen subject studies make it a captivating read, and beneficial contribution to the academic study of photographs. The chosen papers cover adequately the chosen thematic sections of the volume, while their breadth and order address broader historic trends and theoretical concepts. The volume, as a product of research emerging from the Ryerson Image Centre, inevitably focuses very much on the reception of photography in the Western World: the authors are predominantly from North America and France. It would be beneficial to promote discourse outside of this limited sphere, and this will hopefully be addressed in future volumes of RIC Books.

Rebecca Repper
The University of Western Australia

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Wednesday, 12 December, 2018 6:55 PM