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Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination

Edited by Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan. London, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2003. xiv, 354 pp. Illustrations. ISBN I 86064 751 O cloth $75.00, ISBN I 86064 752 9 paper $27.50.


Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol. 66, No.2, Fall/Winter 2003)


The twelve scholarly essays that make up Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination underscore the vast intellectual distance traveled from William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1844 assertion that his invention was the “pencil of nature.” Nor is the medium conceived of here as the “bastard of science left on the doorstep of art,” to borrow a phrase from curator Peter Galassi. Rather, editors Joan Schwartz and James Ryan pluck photography from the swirl of simplistic either/or art versus science debates to demonstrate the ways in which photographs have historically insinuated themselves into every conceivable aspect of people’s lives and thus powerfully influenced individuals perceptions of the world. The focus of the volume, as the editors describe it, is to present photography as a “socially constructed, culturally constituted and historically situated practice, and photographs as visual images, historical documents and material objects.”

To be sure, editors Schwartz and Ryan are in a position to know. Schwartz was until recently a Senior Photography Specialist at the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. A long-time member of the Society of American Archivists and its Visual Materials Section, Schwartz recently became Associate Professor in the Department of Art at Queen’s University. Ryan, a Lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Geography at Queen’s University Belfast, scoured photographic archives while researching his influential book on colonial encounters in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire (The University of Chicago Press, 1997).

The editorial conceit of this book is that photography has been the “bastard child” not of science but of academia, its sheer ubiquity rendering it perversely invisible in discussions about space and place. Picturing Place strives to right this imbalance by making photography central to discourses of the “geographical imagination.” What does this term mean, appearing as it does with varying degrees of clarity throughout the volume? Broadly conceived, “geographical imagination” describes the complex ways people come to understand the world and situate themselves in it. Photographs – in both their content and context – are at the core of each author’s argument.

Three thematic sections (Picturing Place, Framing the Nation, Colonial Encounters) and an epilogue provide the book’s framework. As becomes quickly apparent there is, as the editors attest, no unifying theoretical or methodological approach across essays, with more than half concentrating on the nineteenth century. All authors used photographs as primary source documents, and the volume uncovers a wealth of archival material. A dozen separate analyses of photographs made by amateurs and professionals, commercial photographers and artists, and appearing in government reports, personal albums, museums, and scientific surveys make for an engaging overview of the extent and variety of photography’s uses throughout its 150-year history; this survey is the book’s decided strength.

As with any assemblage of essays, some stand out. In the first section, M. Christine Boyer wrests discussion of Mission Héliographique – the 1851 project sponsored by the French government to document the country’s architectural legacy through images – away from a prevailing art historical emphasis on individual photographers and connoisseurship. Boyer acknowledges the aesthetic merits of these images, made by such luminaries as Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq, and Éduoard Baldus, while restoring a sense of context to the project. The photographs function beyond the realm of art, argues Boyer, and were perceived and used in myriad ways by French officials as they attempted to establish an architectural patrimony for the nation. David Nye explores an entirely different time and place in his essay concerning photography’s role in bringing the Grand Canyon to national consciousness in the United States. Unlike Yosemite, a site embedded in the American psyche as early as 1860, the Grand Canyon arrived late to visual prominence. Nye traces an increased recognition of the Grand Canyon’s grandeur to the circulation of photographs by the Santa Fe railroad and the resultant tourist influx. The corporation and its tourist customers focused their images on the view “from the rim.” This look down into the glorious abyss represented, Nye claims, “the Kantian vastness of eternity” and was the dramatic, inverse equivalent of an earlier generation’s views upward to thundering falls and the sublime mountaintops of the American West.

The book’s second section – Framing the Nation – begins with an essay by Jens Jäger that contrasts Britain and Germany’s attitudes toward landscape imagery in the construction of national identity. Jens claims that whereas Britain embraced landscape photography to impart patriotic ideals, Germany shunned photography as too crudely factual to inform an ideological campaign. Brian S. Osbourne centers his essay on a group of immigrant photographs commissioned by the Canadian National Railway between 1925 and 1930. Osbourne explores these images through the respective Foucaultian gazes of the bureaucrat, the public, and the immigrant to highlight the nation’s competing attitudes toward immigration practices. In the third and final section, authors address the notion of the gaze further, specifically of the colonizer upon the colonized. In Derek Gregory’s essay, this means the photographic distillation of nineteenth century Egypt to a series of monuments and exotic “types” created for touristic consumption. Alison Blunt interprets the photographs of British elites in the 1856 Lucknow Album as oddly sterile scenes of domesticity particularly when viewed against the backdrop of the bloody Indian “mutiny” that occurred just a year later. Finally, the epilogue by William J. Mitchell traces the trajectory of image production, dissemination, and storage from Talbot’s 1839 invention to the digital age, and speculates on the archival challenges facing the digital generation.

With Picturing Place Schwartz and Ryan admirably succeed in putting photography at the center of scholarly conversations about place. While the “imaginative geographies” of these essays range widely across centuries and countries, more work still needs to be done. This is one of only a handful of books beginning to take seriously the vital position of visual images within wider social and political contexts, but their numbers are growing. Archivists should applaud the creative approaches to cultural studies that these varied uses of photography invite. Alas, the primary weakness of this collection is the jargon and convoluted writing that mar some of the essays. One favorite example is: “The spatiality of social interaction, naturalized, and indeed neutralized, within the realistic appearance of photographs, is inscribed by socio-political relations of which photographs were simultaneously a medium and a product.” Come again? If one has the patience to wade through this kind of language – including the current vogue for the terms “spatiality,” “discursive,” “mimetic,” “alterity,” and (my personal favorite) “facticity” – the effort is genuinely worthwhile. Picturing Place gives photography its due as primary source material, and this is reason enough for archivists to include it on their reference shelf. Schwartz is the model of a scholar-archivist, bringing her considerable experience to bear in a book that will undoubtedly inform academic and curatorial discussions on photographic imagery and geographic understandings for many years to come.


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