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The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885–1918

The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885–1918

by Elizabeth Edwards, Nicholas Thomas (Editor)

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In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, hundreds of amateur photographers took part in the photographic survey movement in England. They sought to record the material remains of the English past so that it might be preserved for future generations. In The Camera as Historian, the groundbreaking historical and visual anthropologist Elizabeth


In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, hundreds of amateur photographers took part in the photographic survey movement in England. They sought to record the material remains of the English past so that it might be preserved for future generations. In The Camera as Historian, the groundbreaking historical and visual anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards works with an archive of nearly 55,000 photographs taken by 1,000 photographers, mostly unknown until now. She approaches the survey movement and its social and material practices ethnographically. Considering how the amateur photographers understood the value of their project, Edwards links the surveys to concepts of leisure, understandings of the local and the national, and the rise of popular photography. Her examination of how the photographers negotiated between scientific objectivity and aesthetic responses to the past leads her to argue that the survey movement was as concerned with the conditions of its own modernity and the creation of an archive for an anticipated future as it was nostalgic about the imagined past. Including more than 120 vibrant images, The Camera as Historian offers new perspectives on the forces that shaped Victorian and Edwardian Britain, as well as contemporary debates about cultural identity, nationality, empire, material practices, and art.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The Camera as Historian offers groundbreaking insights into the entangled relations of photography and history, the recording impulse in modern British history, the complex links between visual practices and the historical imagination, and the intellectual and cultural traditions that frame representations of the past. It is significant as the first in-depth look at the fascinating and important work of the British survey movement: its participants, driving impulses, economies, audiences, values, and successes and failures. The book is made all the more important by Elizabeth Edwards's insistence on attention to the ways that photographs were produced and translated, and her demonstration of a mode of historical interpretation that not only links critical theory and archival practice, but illustrates their inseparability."—Jennifer Tucker, author of Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science

"In this magnificent study, Elizabeth Edwards approaches the photographic survey movement in England above all as a practice: a relation between photographers, photographic technologies, photographs, and the material traces of the past in landscapes. This practice, as Edwards shows in rich detail, was extensive, amateur, public, local, and reflexive. With its empirical depth and conceptual reach, this book enhances immensely our understanding of the mediation of both history and geography by photography."—Gillian Rose, author of Doing Family Photography: The Domestic, the Public and the Politics of Sentiment

Journal of British Studies - Kate Flint
“Essential and exciting reading for anyone interested in the visual culture of this period. Edwards’s achievement is to make the activities of one group—or linked groups—of people speak to the nation’s sense of itself and of how its physical character should be preserved and remembered. No less important is the way in which she makes us think about how photography may best be understood as history and what its responsibilities may be.”
Oxford Art Journal - Steve Edwards
The Camera as Historian is unquestionably a major work of the new photographic history. As I have indicated it is now the benchmark study of mass photographic practice; it is inventively conceived, meticulously researched, and full of new ways of thinking about photography, history, and many other things.”
Choice - S. Spencer
“Probably because of the scope, British survey photography has lacked extensive studies, so this thoughtful analysis by Edwards of a complex set of practices and narratives is welcome. . . . Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above.”
Victorian Studies - Jane Lydon
"I am Australian, and thus very distant in space and experience from these landscapes — but just holding and looking through Edwards’s beautiful book fills me with nostalgia and longing for a landscape I have never known.... Erudite and nuanced, this rich and suggestive book raises many issues and points to further work."
Leonardo Reviews - Jan Baetens
“This is a great book on a great subject by a great author (and, yes, by a great publisher as well, for the amount and quality of the often never published images in this well designed and impressive volume is exemplary). . . . If good history is a dialogue between past, present and future, then The Camera as History is best history.”
The Local Historian - Alan Crosby
“[A] fascinating and remarkable new book. . . . It is also a pleasure to use, being beautifully produced, with (as would be expected) a wonderful collection of photographs, magnificently reproduced—and. . . it is outstandingly good value.”
Eric Linderman

”This is the only comprehensive monograph on the survey movement, for which Edwards has identified 73 surveys, or regional bodies of work that were focused on particular towns, counties, and cities. Her analysis of the pictures is commendable as she describes the ‘historical imagination’ that these amateur photographers articulated through the surveys. . . . Serious researchers on this topic will appreciate the thorough work offered here, which is well documented in notes and appendixes.”
The Photogram - Mary Desjarlais
The The Camera as Historian provides a dense amount of information about the photographic survey movement, as well as aspects of Victorian and Edwardian Britain that shaped the survey movement. . . . But the content and ideas are interesting and provide an original perspective, making any extra effort in the read a tremendously worthwhile venture.”
Journal of Social History - Nicole Hudgins
“Building on her groundbreaking work on anthropological photography, The Camera as Historian establishes Edwards as a role model in the field of photographic history. Addressing both the concerns of theory and the riches of the archive, Edwards exposes the foibles of these Edwardian amateurs without any bad-faith assumption of chauvinism. Adorned with over a hundred illustrations and a useful bibliography, scholars and graduate students in the fields of photography, visual culture, social, and cultural history will receive multiple dividends from reading and discussing this book.” 
Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide - Taylor J. Acosta
“Edwards demonstrates a true mastery over her material and an adept use of critical theory, such that the book remains wholly engaging. The Camera as Historian positions Edwards as an
exemplar in the writing of history and ethnography within the fields of photography and visualculture. With over one hundred illustrations and a comprehensive bibliography of primary and
secondary sources, this book will surely remain a useful reference on British survey photography and a model historiography of both British history and photography.”
Library Journal
Edwards (director, Photographic History Research Ctr., De Montfort Univ., Leicester, UK; A Record of England: Sir Benjamin Stone & The National Photographic Record Association, 1897–1910) studies the collective work of amateur photographers at the turn of the 20th century. This effort, known in England as the photographic survey movement, attempted to record historically important features of the English landscape with the intent of archiving the country's cultural and social history. This is the only comprehensive monograph on the survey movement, for which Edwards has identified 73 surveys, or regional bodies of work that were focused on particular towns, counties, and cities. Her analysis of the pictures is commendable as she describes the "historical imagination" that these amateur photographers articulated through the surveys. However, Edwards's writing is dense and readers may need to reread much of the text to grasp her meaning. VERDICT Serious researchers on this topic will appreciate the thorough work offered here, which is well documented in notes and appendixes. For readers with a more general interest in the history of British photography, How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1890s to the Present by Val Williams and Susan Bright is recommended.—Eric Linderman, Willoughby-Eastlake P.L., Willowick, OH

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
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8.30(w) x 10.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Camera as Historian



Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5090-3

Chapter One

"Sacred Monuments of the Nation's Growth and Hope"

Amateur Photography and Imagining the Past

In 1916, at the midway point of the Great War, three members of the Photographic Survey and Record of Surrey published a small book, The Camera as Historian. This book set out detailed practices, from fieldwork to the creation of institutional structures, for the use of photography in recording traces of the past. In its first few pages, the book compares a drawing of a wrought-iron lock from Beddington Manor House, Surrey, to a photograph of the same object. The drawing was made for the antiquarian and architectural draftsman A. C. Pugin in 1828 for his book Examples of Gothic Architecture. This comparison placed photography in a long tradition of historical and antiquarian observation and record, while asserting the primacy of the medium over others. The Camera as Historian's authors quoted Pugin's introduction to his book: "Fidelity must constitute the chief value of the work." They then drew attention to the incorrect rendering of the central panel—the improper proportions of the dragon figures—immediately questioning the fidelity of drawing when compared with photography. (See figure 1.) The authors continued, "This illustration is given as epitomising the case for those who urge that the claim of photographic record to superiority over all other forms of graphic record is incontestable." A range of assumptions and aspirations is entangled in this statement, assumptions that define a specific discourse on the nature of photography, evidence, authenticity, and historical potential.

This book explores claims about photography and its utility in relation to popular historical imagination as that imagination was articulated through the photographic survey movement in England between 1885 and 1918. The study can be read as an ethnography of aspects of the culture of English amateur photography at a specific historical moment, but, more importantly, it is a prism through which to examine the relationships between historical imagination and photography more broadly. While there are of course many other bodies of photographic material that could be approached as filters and articulations of historical imagination, in that they address the relations between past, present, and future, the photographic survey movement is particularly useful because it produced images made specifically to articulate a series of values though which the past could be expressed. Saturated with the temporal character intrinsic to historical imagination, the photographs from the surveys were the product of a self-conscious act of memorialisation.


The idea of amateur photographic survey was first fully articulated in 1889 when W. Jerome Harrison, a geologist, science schoolmaster, and keen amateur photographer from the Midlands, read a paper at the Birmingham Photographic Society, in which he laid out the idea of a systematic photographic survey that would form an archival base for the future. With 1,000 copies of his paper circulated to photographic societies and reprinted in full in the photographic press, Harrison defined the parameters in which the energies of amateur photographers and the evidential qualities of photography might be harnessed to make a permanent and publicly accessible record of England's visible past. Such a record should comprise the antiquities, ancient buildings, and customs of Britain, and the practices, and current conditions that map human experience, in order to constitute a "True Pictorial History of the Present Day."

In Britain, as elsewhere, the moment of recognition, cohesion, and aspiration resonated through amateur photographic circles and through the public perception of the utility and evidential importance of photographs over the next thirty years, and indeed beyond. In and of itself, the presentation of Harrison's paper was an unremarkable event, giving rise to many photographic acts that would too, in isolation, be entirely unremarkable. Yet, taken together, they raise some fundamental questions about the relationship between photography and the past, questions about photography as evidence, the public utility of photographs, and popular historical imagination at a key period of expansion and change.

The amateur photographic survey movement emerged from the confluence of two major but complex social shifts: first, a response to the sense of an ever-accelerating change in the social landscape and the physical environment, and second, the massive expansion of photography as a pastime. As has been discussed by a multitude of commentators, the period was characterised by a sense of the losses and gains of industrialisation, increasing social mobility, urban and suburban growth, and the expansion and solidification of imperial and national identities. These are, of course, huge subjects that can only be adequately explored elsewhere. By the late nineteenth century, the effects of various interlocking dynamics were so complex, fragmented, amorphous, localised, and contradictory that generalisations obscure as much as they reveal. Consequently, there is a need to shift analysis from a homogenising, macroscopic perspective to the complex negotiations of the microscopic, and from identifying core trends of a single period to exploring the ways in which those dynamics are experienced at the periphery, located away from the centres of overt political, economic, or cultural power. It is here that larger trends are at work in a multitude of ways, without necessarily assuming a complete dependence of the periphery on the centre, because that periphery is also a space of complex patterns of agency. This is just such a study. A number of interrelated paths could therefore lead out from this study, for it is part of a vast, multidisciplinary complex: perceptions of change and modernity, class relations, the expanding democratic base, national identity, centre-provincial relations, the preservation movement, colonial experience, imperialism, the impact of mass education, and literatures of cultural nostalgia. While all will have their walk-on parts, and all of them form part of the broader context in which the photographic surveys were undertaken, they are not the focus of this book. My account is of a periphery shaped and articulated through the photographic practice of amateurs, how they saw the value in what they did and what they aspired to. Implicit throughout this study is the question, to what extent is it possible to posit a history that is played out at the level of the image. How might we get a "sense of the ways in which the particular activities [of amateur practice and photographic survey] combined into a way of thinking and living"? I leave it to others to pursue the broader strands and to integrate photography and photographs, often remarkable in their absence, into accounts of those broader strands. Much of the theoretical writing about photography must also be assumed here. Its influence is clear in this book's line of argument, but although it has quietly informed my thinking this writing does not need a reiteration. The focus instead is on how a photographic movement emerged from a certain set of social and cultural conditions. The movement as it emerged in Britain in the late nineteenth century embraced, or was at least connected to, the thinking and photographic practices of many thousands of amateur photographers, and indeed some professionals, and self-consciously articulated the relationship between photography and a future historical engagement.

Part of the nineteenth-century impulse to map, control, and render a wide range of phenomena visible as spectacle, the photographic surveys were born of the productive interaction of epistemological frames and technological possibility. The application of photography in these contexts also linked the eye to broader scientific systems of knowledge, and extended them in revelatory ways. As an advocate of survey photography stated:

If we do but consider the nature of photography we may be led to perceive that, in very truth, the language of photography is a part at least of the language of the universe. It is the language of geometry and astronomy, and of physics and chemistry. The language of all pervading radial activities under such conditions that we can see and gradually learn to read the records.

Our personal vision is very limited, both as regards sensitiveness and the periodicity of the incident vibrations which are directly perceptible by us, but photography knows no such narrow limitations, and can and does help us to see pictures where the eye could perceive nothing.

The function of the survey movement and its photographs must also be understood as part of larger culture of the spectacle of mass production and hypervisibility, a culture manifested in a vast array of productions, for instance, railways, in department stores, or in advertising, and which saturated the nineteenth-century visual consciousness. The images of historical topographies produced by the amateur photographers of the survey movement were in some respects self-conscious responses to this all-embracing visuality and its potential Qualities of vision and experiences of sight were therefore integral to the way in which topographies of all sorts were absorbed and understood.

Photographic survey and the evidential potential of photography were not, of course, new ideas. They had been present from the invention of the medium, as Francois Arago, in announcing the daguerreotype to the Chamber of Deputies in Paris in 1839, noted how the technology could be used to record and aid the study of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Countries in Europe and beyond saw a steady stream of photographic recording and surveying projects. In France in 1851, La Mission Heliographique, the first state-sponsored photographic project to record the built cultural heritage, was established. In Britain in 1855, in the spirit of amateurism that is a focus of this book, Reverend F. A. S. Marshall extolled the virtues of photographs as architectural records: "Everything that can be subject to visual observation is rendered permanent, so that whatever is noticed now may be noticed by all the world forever." In a similar vein in the 1870s and 1880s the Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London produced a series of photographic portfolios of old buildings for subscribers, while a number of photographic surveying activities were connected to programmes of city improvement and redevelopment. Preeminent examples of such surveying activities are those of Charles Marville in Paris in the 1850s, those of Thomas Annan in Glasgow in the 1860s, and those by Robert White Thrupp and James Burgoyne in Birmingham in the 1870s. But during the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a massive expansion in the number and scale of such projects. There were projects, for instance, to map the heavens, the weather, the races of the British Empire, the antiquities of India, and the archaeological sites of Great Britain. Scientific "atlases" were produced to map pathologies, microbes, and so forth. There were also archives of utopian visual ambition, notably that of the Institut International de Photographie in Brussels, to "photograph everything that existed" and create a universal encyclopaedia of images of Borgesian scale and dilemma. (See figure 2.)

Photographic surveys of the kind explored in this book took place under the broad ethos of the Heimatschutz movement in Germany, and in Switzerland, France, Belgium, Scandinavia, Italy, and East Prussia (now Poland) for instance. While these projects differed from one another structurally, in patterns of funding, participation, and archiving, they emerge nonetheless from the same epistemological frames of encyclopaedic desire, positivist confidence, preservational impulse, and a concern with narratives of the past, present, and future that are entangled with similar discourses of photographic reliability and public utility.

The survey movement emerged from a massive expansion of photography, itself part of a wider socioeconomic shift towards increased leisure, mobility, disposable income, and greater educational opportunity. With the advent of dry-plate negative technologies and smaller, more manoeuvrable cameras, the hobby of photography was no longer the preserve of a wealthy elite. While earlier "democratisations" of photography in the middle of the nineteenth century could only be relative, given the expenses of photographic equipment and supplies, by the late nineteenth century there was a genuine increase in access to photographic technologies. Photography was certainly still beyond the financial reach of most working-class people, but by 1905 some 10 percent of the population of Great Britain (approximately 4 million people) had direct access to camera technology and engaged in making photographs, with an associated plethora of "how to" manuals and magazines aimed at amateurs, including children. There was a range of publications aimed at different interests, different levels of expertise and different pockets. The inexpensive Photographic Answers sold for one penny and included a collotype reproduction, while Photographic Quarterly cost 2 shillings an issue, and the widely circulated Amateur Photographer cost 2 pence a week in 1902. Other people had access to photography and its publications through clubs and educational establishments. Photography was taught extensively in technical colleges and through a range of social and educational networks such as mechanics institutes and photography sections of clubs and societies, activities that required a supporting literature. As many commentators have shown, however, at one level this broadening of the photographic base tied photographers more firmly to a system of industrial capital through the consumer expansion of modernity and the manufacture of photographic goods, especially camera kits, plates, and papers. But on the other hand, such developments freed the amateur photographer from the need for a detailed knowledge of chemistry and optics. The amount of time and the knowledge necessary to undertake photographic activity had shifted radically.

This activity has also to be understood within patterns of photographic connectivity as the medium and its ever-expanding presence became a defining feature of everyday life. As one commentator said: "Photography has its uses in connection with every phase of life and every industry; it is at one time the most useful and the most popular art and science that has ever been placed in the hands of man, and is destined to become a necessity in every walk of life, and every art, science, manufacture or trade." In this context, the connection between the recording potential of the medium and the direct popular engagement with the visual remains of the past grew as "preservation became an ever more powerful and widespread impulse in British public life." There is, then, in cultural terms, a sense in which the idea of mass photographic survey and record had a certain inevitability to it.


The presence of photography has now saturated the consciousness of the past for over 150 years, becoming one of the "new connectors in temporal perspectives" noted by Paul Ricoeur. The medium accelerates the "primacy of the visual," which has marked memory construction since antiquity. It is hard to imagine a sense of the past without photography, so integrated is it in the relations between past, present, and future. This process, a culture of what Scott McGuire has termed "photomnemonics," has meant that "the impact of the camera cannot be limited to filling gaps in historical content. On the contrary, the profound technological mutation of the archive necessitates questioning the very concept of history, and exposing the collusion between representation and the time it has long presupposed." Scholars from Siegfried Kracauer to Jacques Le Goff and Raphael Samuel have posited that the advent of photography was the turning point in historical consciousness, just as the relationship between the past and future held in photographs became a formative strand in the writing of theorists in the mid-twentieth century, in particular, Walter Benjamin and Kracauer. Photography "revolutionizes memory: it multiplies and democratizes it, gives it a precision and a truth never before attained in visual memory, and makes it possible to preserve the memory of time and of chronological evolution."

The central theme of this book is, as I have noted, the relationship between photography and historical imagination, especially the ways in which the latter is articulated and negotiated through the former, and through the agency of amateur photographers. Historical consciousness, questions of memory, practice, and the study of the ways in which people at given historical moments negotiate, understand, and act upon their perceptions of the past, both collectively and individually, encircle the questions raised here. I can only touch on those questions—and they have been extensively explored elsewhere. I prefer, in any case, the term "historical imagination" because the uses of photography explored in this book were concerned not only with a sense of the past as a naturalised cultural ambience, but with self-conscious and imaginative acts of inscription in response to the material traces of the past. Furthermore, my use of the term "history" is framed not only by the interests of an academic or disciplinary understanding of what history might be, but more particularly by an anthropological response to photographers' own use of the word and categorisation of their activities. Debates over and descriptions of the production of what were referred to as "history pictures" constitute a set of clearly articulated strategies and mechanisms through which people situated themselves in time and space and negotiated the translation of this situated sense into photographs and archives.


Excerpted from The Camera as Historian by ELIZABETH EDWARDS Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Elizabeth Edwards is Professor of Photographic History and Director of the Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University in Leicester. From 1988 until 2005, she was Head of Photograph and Manuscript Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, where she was also a Lecturer in Visual Anthropology. Edwards is the author of Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology, and Museums, the editor of Anthropology and Photography 1860–1920, and a co-editor of Photography, Anthropology and History; Visual Sense: The Cultural Reader; and Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Material Culture and the Senses.

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