From the Studio to the (Digital) Archive: Interpreting Constructions of Race, Gender, and Identity in Photographs and Photographic Collections

AHA Session 61
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Columbus Circle (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Julie McGee, University of Delaware
Laura Helton, University of Delaware

Session Abstract

From the time a photograph is produced, narratives are formed. Sitters shape and perform an identity through backdrops, props and clothing. The story continues as the photograph is passed around, put on prominent display, or even hidden away in a shoebox. Arranging the photo next to others prompts the creator and viewer to respond and develop new narratives from their order. And whether this collection is experienced in the home, in the archive, or virtually in a digital database shapes how an individual interacts with the photograph and creates meaning. This panel explores the different contexts of experiencing photographs and how those contexts affect or alter the photograph’s meaning.

The historiography on photography discusses the photograph as a constructed narrative of race, gender, and identity in each phase of its life -- composition, production, distribution, and interaction. Material culture scholars have studied photographs as the embodiment of a network of interacting objects and actors -- including the sitter, the photographer, the props, the studio, and the camera -- producing racialized and gendered images. In Art History, scholars have studied the production and circulation of photographs of a racialized other in the late nineteenth and twentieth century as a means of developing the racial identity of the photographer and his audience, often in tension with the sitter. This idea has been taken further by postcolonial scholars examining how ethnographic photographs were used in publications, museum exhibits and academic study to construct scientific definitions of race. This panel pushes the conversation to also consider the role of the collector, archivist, and researcher in the continuing construction of race, gender, and identity in photography and its archival preservation. What is the impact on a photograph’s existing racialized and gendered narrative when arranged with others into a “collection”? How does the act of collecting photographs into a single group and donating them to an institution redefine their meaning or add historical importance? And what does that mean for objects archived in a digital space, which are neither seen nor touched in their physical form by the historian?

The three papers in this panel grapple with making meaning from collections of photographs. Erika Piola examines the sociopolitical role of photography in the Philadelphia black community through a ninety-year archive of family photos donated to and digitized by the Library Company of Philadelphia. Jessa Dahl examines Japanese souvenir photography in the nineteenth century, how their circulation as mementos created an image of Japan in the mind of Western consumers, and how that image has been sustained and contested through the process of archiving and digitizing. Allison Robinson discusses how an assortment of fifty-three photographs of predominantly black sitters came to be donated, arranged, and digitized as “The Baltimore Collection” and the significance of this collection to studies of late nineteenth and early twentieth century black life in the United States. This panel will appeal to scholars of photography; American history and Japanese history; race, gender, and identity; material and visual culture; and archives and digital history.

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