Photographic Histories, Actualities, Potentialities: Amateur Photography as Photographic Historiography

Gil Pasternak

Research work that looks into the histories of photography and photographs, away from the museum and art gallery as well as beyond its utilisation by social institutions of power, is only in its very early days. And yet, at the present time, one notices the growing number of sporadic scholarly investigations that centre on a fairly discontinuous range of photographic manifestations, uses, mobilisations and other photography-related phenomena that do not seem to fit in so easily with familiar photographic historical trajectories. I am thinking of investigations that consider photographic practices carried out away from photography’s professional and artistic spheres, by individual subjects, within the domestic sphere and its surroundings, within the ideologically loaded national domain and its various geographical terrains all around the globe, as well as at one’s own leisure, as part of the convivial gatherings of photography enthusiasts.[1] Historiographically speaking, one question that comes to mind in light of these numerous transformations in the field of photographic history is how or where they are positioned, if at all, in relation to other, dominant histories of photography? As a rule of thumb, such studies do not aspire to contribute to the development of the two dominant trails in photographic history; they neither expand the museological history of photography – also known as its canonical history – nor the history of its utilisation for the establishment of social discipline and norms by organised public institutions – also known as the new history of photography. Instead, they are often characterised by their authors’ united ambition to narrate the sociocultural conditions, aspirations, sociability, beliefs and types of both technical and tacit knowledge that have subsisted within human environments of photographic production whose significance has been marginalised by dominant socio-political and cultural forces.[2] They are also characterised by their compilers’ intentions to record in writing the characteristic practices, representational regimes, interests and activities that have imbued such environments with a notion of continuity albeit incoherencies. Therefore, growing outside and away from the discourses that hold the dominant histories of photography together, how do emerging studies, of the kind mentioned above, understand photography?

In raising such questions in the context of this short essay, I wish to enter into a brief dialogue with some other scholars who mapped out the historiography of photography with a view to assessing whether its history could be explained comprehensibly and exist within a demarcated scholarly territory of its own.[3] Whereas this question and those that I raised above may at first sight seem unrelated to a reconsideration of amateur photography, I hope to be able to show later that in fact the question of amateur photography and its relationship with the history of photography compels one to reconsider the methodologies that have dictated the development of photographic history and defined its scope.

It is virtually common knowledge among photographic historians today that, although constituting the hegemonic narrative in the field, the canonical history of photography represents only one small segment of a set of very particular trajectories in photographic history. Incepted in the first half of the twentieth century, this history of photography is museological at its core. It follows the methodological model laid out by the various revised editions of Beaumont Newhall’s catalogue for the exhibition that he curated at the Museumof Modern Artin 1937 under the title Photography 1839-1937.[4]

The criteria determining what and whose photographs can join this history orbit around the abstract ideas of straight optical vision, careful composition, and the photographer’s exceptional gaze. These criteria are meant to help identify new, exceptional photographic styles that are in dialogue with the visual scope reflected by the photographic works already secured under the wing of the canon while also exceeding their formalist capacity. This emphasis on progress and the photographers’ formalistic approach to photography has shaped a photographic history featuring only works that can be measured against already-established qualifiers of the medium-specific category of “fine art photography”.[5] Given the high-brow orientation of this history, its modernist characteristics, its emergence within museums and galleries, and thereby its institutionalised affiliation with the art market’s economy, perhaps it is not surprising that it has mainly considered the portfolios and lives of American, white, male practitioners. Centring on aesthetics and prioritising style, inimitability, as well as the photographer’s conscious exploration into optic vision, the canonical history of photography has marginalised the possible relevance of content, context, technical processes, photographic activities as well as practices, and the social life of photographs altogether.[6]

However, the assimilation of the museological history of photography into the academy in the 1970s triggered the operation of other forces in the field of photographic history. Motivated mainly by various Marxist, feminist and poststructuralist theoretical frameworks, a group of emerging scholars opened up new critical spaces for the exploration of photography and its multiple histories. The theories that guided them, neither of which is native as such to photographic history, have led these historians to explore photography in relation to the leading debates of the time. The inspection of the participation of photography in defining social class, social status, sexuality, race, nationalism, and patriotism are only few of the concerns that the new historians of photography interrogated. Whereas they did not neglect the study of photography in the context of fine art altogether, they did challenge the privileged status given to medium specificity as if to allow photographic history to expand beyond the bourgeois surroundings of the art museum and gallery. To do so they looked at the involvement of photography in implementing institutional authority, in sustaining hierarchical structures of power, as well as in regulatory processes designed to normalise society to adhere to imposed moral and ethical values.[7] Their histories have brought to the fore the centrality of the occidental gaze and its consequential desires in shaping limited and limiting historical narratives about photography.[8] They have also paved the way for the revision and expansion of already-existing canonical narratives, to record the roles women and minority groups played in this history.[9] Yet, framed themselves by theories of power, photography’s new histories have not been able to attend to photographic history outside the debate about social domination and organisation.

All things considered, it would appear that the canonical and new histories of photography have both paved orthodox courses to tell the story of photography, inserting it into different filing cabinets in a library that fails to record how vital photography has been to private experiences of modern everyday life and public experiences of the ordinary. Indeed, other than fine art, commercial and professional photography, the vast majority of photographic activities, practices and imagery have at least until fairly recently remained mainly unclassified, unnamed, and therefore known primarily by tacit knowledge alone. Bestowing a sense of greater significance upon aesthetically conscious practitioners, ideologically alert institutions, and the way both of these groups use photography, its dominant histories neglected to account for the way ordinary people have used photography to restructure their lives in private, and reshape their relationships with the worlds surrounding them at the same time as more and more punitive institutions burst out all around them. And although some attempts have been made to address amateur photographs within dominant debates, mainly through the category of the vernacular, effectively they did not operate to decentre dominant photographic narratives. Rather, they appear to have annexed private photographic practices, images and objects to the same debates that underpin the dominant narratives about photographic history, often drawing aesthetic and historical links between private photographic collections and the history of art at large.[10]

Conversely, studies of amateur photographic landscapes face the field of photographic history with a methodological challenge, opening up the question of photographic history anew. This is because ultimately such environments could be said to constitute political (rather than social) melting pots, where personal and intellectual aesthetics, as well as artistic, professional, commercial and technical aspirations are acted out in relation to, and against each other. They are therefore sites in which distinct perceptions, uses and applications of photography are brought together, blurring the boundaries between imposed categories of photographic products, meanings, practices and the physical backgrounds that they inhabit.[11] Furthermore, amateur photography also inevitably exists within spaces organised by social powers; it is not free of the gravity of any of the institutions that coordinate modern societies, such as governments, the education system, science and the media. However, as opposed to the participation of photography in other domains, amateur practices themselves have no direct, willing affiliation with either of these institutions.[12]

Therefore, researching and attempting to write the histories of amateur photography is not a mere indication of the expansion of the new history of photography, nor a sheer intensified move away from photography’s canonical history. Rather, in place of the more conventional perceptions of photography as a means of aesthetic representation, a commercial or propagandistic apparatus, a medium or an idea, the study of amateur photography brings to light how necessary it is to reconfigure photography at large through the introduction of innovative, unrestricted critical parameters. The parameters implied in existing studies call for the designation of photography as a process enmeshed in complex sets of interpersonal connections, as well as an open, physical, virtual and discursive platform, available to anyone, sometimes used to enact self formations and negotiations of subject positions within given realities and, at other times, to create alternative living conditions, or even mere entertainment for its active users, passive consumers and indifferent subjects.

The study of amateur photography appears to have the potential to sprout an exploratory methodological model that would equip photographic historians, perhaps for the first time in the historiography of photography, with the ability to scrutinise systematically any photographic-related practice and environment, regardless of its ongoing or absent analysis within the various discourses about photography and the discursive fields that they have already germinated. This is because the consideration of the various voices and products that shape the meaning and use of photography within interpersonal – that is political – rather than artistic or social grouping demands that photographic historians unravel and record a different kind of information to that often accounted for by other histories of photography. In fact, looking at photography within a flexible conceptual framework that considers it as a process linked to the passage of time and as a platform connected to physical and virtual environments necessitates an unbounded exploration of photography’s visual, verbal and corporal projected perceptions as voiced and made manifest by anyone and by any means of communication, be it verbal, textual, visual or tactile. Put simply, it prompts photographic historians to explore what anyone who either uses or experiences photography has to say about it, how they describe and inscribe their own as well as their peers’ thoughts about it, how photography makes them behave, what it makes them do, and what they make photography do for them.

Broadly speaking, studies of amateur photography in the disciplines of sociology and visual anthropology have already engaged with such perceptions of photography and localised modes of research. However, faithful to the set of interests and aims of these disciplines, they have not been dedicated to the exploration of relationships with photography that emerge personally, privately and prosaically. Instead, sociological interventions have been dedicated to elucidating social processes and connections.[13] Explorations in visual anthropology have looked into patterns of photographic representation, use and significance specifically within the context of unifying cultural conventions.[14]

What differentiates the proposal for a political understanding of photography from other attempts to frame it by other academic disciplines, and mainly from its perception within both the canonical and new histories of photography, is that it liberates photographic history and photography itself from any conclusive definition of its utilisation and behaviour. This is an ambitious, holistic project that could transform the existing trajectories within photographic history as it releases them from the discourses in which they are often confined, bringing them together to form the history of photography as an inclusive area of study, emancipated from its own imprisonment within other academic disciplines, artistic lineages, and professional industries of power. To achieve that, it cannot afford to privilege the visual over the verbal nor the tactile over the textual, or vice versa. Compiling a political history of photography necessitates the consideration of all of those as different manifestations of photography and of the indefinite range of political behaviours triggered by photographic thinking, photographic objects, practices, occasions, and photographic events. Positioned between and around other histories of photography, the growing studies of amateur photography illuminate just how exclusive and limited, regressive and restricting the field of photographic history has been so far.


  1. See, for example, Jonas Larsen, ‘Families Seen Sightseeing: Performativity of Tourist Photography’, Space and Culture 2005 8: 416–434; Geoffrey Batchen, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance, New York: 2004; Hirsch, Marianne. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Harvard: 1997; Jo Spence and Patricia Holland (eds.), Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography, London: 1991; Pierre Bourdieu (ed.), Photography: A Middle-brow Art, trans. Shaun Whiteside, Stanford: California: 1990; Richard Chalfen, Snapshot Versions of Life, Ohio: 1987. back
  2. Moreover, in a book chapter entitled ‘Sixty Billion Sunsets’ Julian Stallabrass accounts for some recent forces within capitalist markets that have challenged the insubordinate position of amateur practices in relation to other, socially established, tamed categories of photographic production. These forces include the colossal introduction of devices and technologies that ultimately promote the banal perfection of amateur photography. According to Stallabrass, by doing so, these forces drain amateur photography of its ability to record and communicate private dissimilarities. See Julian Stallabrass, Gargantua: Manufactured Mass Culture, London: 1996, 13–39. back
  3. See, for example, Ya’ara Gil Glazer, ‘A New Kind of History? The Challenges of Contemporary Histories of Photography’, Journal of Art Historiography 3, 2010; Douglas R. Nickle, ‘History of Photography: The State of Research’, The Art Bulletin 83:3, 2001, 548–558; Joel Snyder, ‘Enabling Confusion’, History of Photography 26:2, Summer, 2002. back
  4. See for example, Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day, 4th ed., New York: 1964. Examples of the development of the canonical history of photography in line with Newhall’s historiographical approach include, for instance, Peter Galassi, Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography, New York: 1981; John Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960, New York: 1978; John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye, New York: 1964. back
  5. For discussions of the state of photographic history prior to the establishment of the canon see, Anne McCauley, 'Writing Photography’s History before Newhall', History of Photography 21:2, Summer, 1997, 87–101; Martin Gasser, 'Histories of Photography 1839–1939,' History of Photography 16:1, Spring, 1992, 50–60. back
  6. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, ‘The Armed Vision Disarmed: Radical Formalism from Weapon to Style’, in Richard Bolton (ed.), The Contest of Meaning, Cambridge, Mass.: 1989, 86–110; Rosalind Krauss, ‘Photography's Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View’, Art Journal 42:4, The Crisis in the Discipline, 1982, 311–319. back
  7. See for example, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices, Minneapolis: 1991; John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, New York: 1988); Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, Mass.: 1985); Allan Sekula, Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photo works, 1973-1983, Halifax: 1984. back
  8. One of the recent examples of this is, John Tagg, The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truth and the Capture of Meaning, Minneapolis: London: 2009. back
  9. See for example, Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History, 2002; reprinted 3rd edition: London, 2010; Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography, 1984, reprinted 4th edition, New York, 2008. back
  10. See for instance, Geoffrey Batchen, Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History, Cambridge, Mass.: London: 2002, 56–80; Douglas R. Nickle, Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present, San Francisco: 1998; Julia Hirsch, Family Photographs: Content, Meaning and Effect, Oxford: 1981. For a discussion of the difference between the uses and meanings of private photographic collections in the domain of fine art as opposed to their significance in the private domain see, Martha Langford, ‘Strange Bedfellows: Appropriations of the Vernacular by Photographic Artists’, Photography and Culture 1:1, 2008, 73–93. back
  11. See, for example, Elizabeth Edwards, The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885-1918, Durham NC: 2012; Gil Pasternak, ‘Posthumous Interruptions: The Political Life of Family Photographs in Israeli Military Cemeteries’, Photography and Culture 3:1, 2010, 41–63; Martha Langford, Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums, Montreal: 2001. back
  12. Here I am referring to the wide range of practices and activities carried out by individual-subjects within, for example, photographic clubs, on vacations, in the household, within the familial domain and the like. Whereas all these environments are connected to the social domain, there is no evidence to suggest that amateur photographers produce photographs with a view to perpetuating these environments’ founding ideologies. back
  13. See, for example, Gillian Rose, Doing Family Photography: The Domestic, the Public and the Politics of Sentiment, Surrey: Burlington: 2010. back
  14. See, for example, Christopher Pinney, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs, Chicago: London, 1997. back