Seminar 2006–07

This seminar brought together scholars in the Toronto area whose research focuses on the history and theory of photography, with the aim of investigating photography’s relation to disciplinarity. Through this investigation, the seminar engaged with some of the central debates in photographic interpretation. The problem of photographic interpretation has gained renewed currency due to the recent rise of new modes of photographic production and circulation. The ubiquity of digital photography and web-based imagery has made the question of the photographic a central concern to a broad range of scholars. The study and use of photographs crosses a variety of institutional and disciplinary fields. Yet, the field devoted to its study, the history of photography, has been located within the history of art. This tension between the disciplinary location of the history of photography and the interdisciplinarity of photographic practices has been a key problem in photographic theory. One of the most obvious tensions is that scholars from some disciplines use photographs as primary-source objects to support research, whereas scholars from other disciplines view the photograph as an object of research itself. We were interested in whether photography is a disciplinary object to be studied through the traditional methods of art historical analysis, or whether it is an interdisciplinary object without a central methodology.

Photography theorist John Tagg has argued that photography is a discursive system, rather than a coherent object or a unified medium or technology. According to Tagg, the term photography refers to an array of practices, which operate across a range of institutional spaces. In one place, photography may be specified as instrument and record, while in another, it could be produced as artistic expression or commodity. When photography is considered as a discursive outcome rather than as a coherent medium, the meaning and status of a photograph are considered as an event. The study of photography would thus entail an investigation of the rules that govern and constrain the performance of a photograph, with an understanding that the performance is always both conditional and specific.

Another theorist, Geoffrey Batchen, has argued that the nature of photography can be understood through a study of its own history. He has attempted to think through the ways that photography has changed the institutions in which it has been deployed, and he has advocated looking at the way photography itself has been altered by entering into various institutional spaces. Batchen has thus suggested that there are specific things that photographs do; photography has effects that are not simply due to its “investment” by external relations. Batchen’s claims open up the possibility of a photographic methodology that might move across the interdisciplinary spaces of photographic practice.

Recent scholarship, such as Tagg’s and Batchen’s, opens up the question of how to study photography. To explore the question of photography’s relation to disciplinarity, the seminar brought together photographic historians whose work employs a range of methodologies and investigates a variety of photographic practices. Drawing on the group’s expertise in the study of photographs from diverse fields, including medical, biological, forensic, artistic, documentary, wildlife, and performance, the seminar searched for both points of commonality and disjuncture in the interpretation and analysis of photographs.


John O’Brian, Professor, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, University of British Columbia

Professor O’Brian has published extensively on modern art history, theory and criticism, particularly on the institutionalization of modernism in North America. His current research is directed at visual responses in art and popular culture to the atom bomb during the Cold War period from 1945 – 1972. A significant portion of this research focuses on “photographic atomica.” Among Professor O’Brian’s 12 books and more than 50 articles focusing on the institutionalization and reception of modernism are: Ruthless Hedonism: The American Reception of Matisse (University of Chicago Press, 1999), which won an American Association of University Press Book Award; Voices of Fire: Art, Rage, Power, and the State, which was co-edited with Bruce Barber and Serge Guilbaut (University of Toronto Press, 1996); and The Flat Side of the Landscape (Mendel Art Gallery, 1989), which won the Braide Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the field of Canadian art history. He is also the editor of the four-volume edition of Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism (University of Chicago Press, 1986 and 1993).

Carol Payne, Assistant Professor, Carleton University

Professor Payne’s current research project is a book-length project on the National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division (1941-1984) and its construction of national identity. This study has been awarded two major grants from the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada: a 2005-2007 Northern Development and Research grant and a 2001-2004 Standard Research Grant. Under the present funded research project, she is collaborating with the Inuit college, Nunavut Sivuniksavut. NS students are being hired to conduct interviews with elders in Nunavut about images from the NFB collection. Dr. Payne’s forthcoming and recent publications include “’How Shall We Use These Gifts?’ Imaging the Land in the National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division” in John O’Brian and Peter White, eds. Unlearning Landscape (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Forthcoming); “Through a Canadian Lens: Discourses of Nationalism in Governmental Photographs of Canada, c.1858 to 2000” in Sheila Petty, Annie Gérin, and Garry Sherbert, eds. Canadian Cultural Poesis: An Anthology. (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Forthcoming); and the collaborative article, Carol Payne and Jeffrey Thomas, “Aboriginal Interventions into the Photographic Archives” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation. Volume XVIII, No.2 (June 2002): 109-125. With Amy Lyford (Occidental College, California), she is co-editing “Photojournalism, Mass Media and the Politics of Spectacle” a special issue of Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation. Vol. XXI, No. 2, (Summer 2005).

John Tagg, Professor, Art History, Binghamton University, New York

Professor Tagg has published widely on photography and contemporary critical theory.  He is the author of Grounds of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics, and the Discursive Field (Minneapolis, 1982) and The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Minneapolis, 1988), as well as many essays, chapters, and other contributions on photography. His current project is an analysis of the discursive and institutional relations of power that frame photographic meaning.

Toronto Photography Seminar Schedule

May 11, 2006, 5-7pm
Planning meeting to determine final reading list and peer review schedule

June 7 and 8, 2006: Two-day retreat

Derrida, Jacques. Right of Inspection, Photographs by Marie-Francoise Plissart. New York: Monacelli Press, 1998.

Hershberger, Andrew E. “Krauss’s Foucault and the Foundations of Postmodern History of Photography.” History of Photography 30, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 55-67.

Kofman, Sarah. Camera Obscura of Ideology, Trans. Will Straw. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999: 21-28.

Phillips, Christopher. “Judgment Seat of Photography,” October 22 (autumn 1982): 27-63.

Kelsey, R. E. “Viewing the Archive: Timothy O’Sullivan’s Photographs for the Wheeler Survey, 1871-74.” The Art Bulletin 85 no. 4 (December 2003): 702-23.

Krauss, Rosalind. “Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View.” Art Journal 1982: 311-319.

Sekula, Allan. “The Body and the Archive.” October 39 (winter 1986): 3-64.

Trachtenberg, Alan. Reading American Photographs: Images as History Mathew Brady to Walker Evans. New York: Hill & Wang, 1989.


July 14, 2006, 2-3pm

Smith, Shawn Michelle. “Introduction” and “The Art of Scientific Propaganda.” Photography on the Color Line: W.E.B. Du Bois, Race and Visual Culture. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2004. 

Willis, Deborah. “The Sociologist’s Eye: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Paris Exposition.” A Small Nation of People: W.E.B. Du Bois and African American Portraits of Progress. Ed. David Levering Lewis and Deborah Willis. New York: Amistad, 2003.

Aug. 25, 2006, 12-3pm
Baetens, Jan.  “Motifs of Extraction: Photographic Images on Book Covers.” History of Photography 29 no. 1 (Spring 2005): 81-9.

Armstrong, Carol. “Introduction,” and  “Photographed and Described: Travelling in the Footsteps of Francis Frith.” In Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1843-1875.  Boston: MIT Press, 1998: 1-22; 277-360.

Sept. 8, 2006,  3-6pm, AGO Prints & Drawings Study Centre
Guest: John Tagg, who discussed a pre-circulated chapter draft from his forthcoming book.

Oct. 20, 2006, 4-7pm
Evans, David. “The Situationist Family Album.” History of Photography 29, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 174-82.

Apel, Dora.  “Torture Culture: Lynching Photographs and the Images of Abu Ghraib.” Art Journal 64, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 88-100.

Nov. 17, 2006, 4-7pm
Guest: John O’Brian who discussed his current research project, “The Nuclear Family of Man.”


Dec. 15, 2006, 12-3pm
Cartwright, Lisa. “Photographs of ‘Waiting Children’: The Transnational Adoption Market.” Social Text 21, no.1 (Spring 2003): 83-109.

Innis, Harold.  “The Bias of Communication.” In Staples, Markets and Cultural Change. D. Drachel Ed. McGill-Queens, 1995: 325-349.

Kramer, C. “Digital Beasts as Visual Esperanto: Getty Images and the Colonization of Sight.” Thinking With Animals. Eds. L. Daston and G. Mitman. New York: Coloumbia University Press, 2005.

Jan. 12, 2007, 4-7pm
Guest: Carol Payne “Lessons with Leah: Re-reading the Photographic Archive of Nation in the National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division.” Visual Studies 21, No. 1 (April 2006): 4-22.

Feb. 9, 2007, 4-7pm

Edwards, S. “Photography, Allegory, Labor.” Recent Approaches to 19th-Century Visual Culture Art Journal 55.2 (Summer 1996): 38-44.

Sandeen, Eric J. “The International Reception of ‘The Family of Man’.” History of Photography 29, no. 4 (Winter 2005): 344-55.

March 2, 2007, 4-7pm

Baer, Ulrich. Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002. (pp. 1-25 discussion of Charcot).           

Didi-Huberman, Georges. Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière. Trans. Alisa Hartz. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003: “Argument” (pp. xi-xii) & “Legends of Photography” (pp. 29-66).

April 26-27, 2007: Final retreat

Batchen, Geoffrey. “Ectoplasm: Photography in the Digital Age.” Over Exposed: Essays on Contemporary Photography. Ed. Carol Squiers. New York: New Press, 1999.

Hansen, M. B. N.  “Seeing with the Body: The Digital Image in Postphotography.” Diacritics 31, no. 4 (2001): 54-84.