The Photographic Event

AHA Session 84
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Gramercy Suite B (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley
The Photographic Events of American Abolitionism
Matthew Fox-Amato, Washington University in St. Louis
The “Look” of History: Photography and Paris’s 1944 Liberation
Catherine E. Clark, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Jennifer Tucker, Wesleyan University

Session Abstract

The concept of the “event” – a significant thing that happens – is fundamental to our discipline, yet the rise of visual studies offers historians new tools to grasp the changing ways in which the things that happen become the very fodder of history. One might understand this process by looking at various visual technologies and texts, whether sketches, paintings, or films. No visual medium, however, has more profoundly influenced the construction of historical events than photography. Drawing upon the field of visual studies as well as the disciplines of art history and philosophy, this panel asks, how do photographs shape and interpret historical events?

The photograph has so often been interpreted as an index of the real – the material trace of that which has happened before the camera’s lens. But it also bears the contradictory discourse of the “image” – first theorized by Daniel Boorstin – that obscures or stands in for reality.[1]These papers will explore how both photographs’ presumed objectivity and their mythic romanticism produce the historical event. Matthew Amato’s paper explores how the circulation of photographs within the American abolitionist movement created a sense of community engaged in political action. Meanwhile, Catherine E. Clark’s paper asks how participants staged the look of history during Paris’s 1944 Liberation and how the circulation of photos after the fact wrote the events into a national myth.  Lastly, Amy Lippert’s paper looks at the use of photographs in efforts to curb “white slavery” in turn-of-the-century America. 

As historians work more and more on twentieth and twenty-first century topics, we have an increasing flood of visual sources at our disposal. Given our proliferating opportunities to consider the past through visual evidence, there is no better time to examine how the language of photography and the capture, reproduction, and circulation of photos themselves have, since the mid-nineteenth century, made history and shaped its “look.” This panel should appeal to scholars interested in cultural and intellectual history, in the history of photography, in visual and material culture, and in historical methods.

[1] Boorstin, The Image.

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