Why the Materiality of Photography Matters

Dr Barnaby Haran

In researching and teaching the history of American photography, I find that the materiality of photographs matters as much as the form and content of the image. A photograph captures not just the ‘frozen moment’ in the picture, but also a stage in the camera’s shifting technologies and the changing ways that people made, consumed, and gave meaning to its products. The materiality of photographs is a key theme of my current research project ‘Skyscrapers and Scrapheaps: American Photographic Culture in the Early Years of the Great Depression’, which consists of a series of journal articles, from archival research enabled by generous funding from the Terra Foundation’s Postdoctoral Research Travel Grant.

As the Depression worsened many photographers turned their cameras towards the plight of the homeless and the hungry, creating an extensive visual record of hard times that by the mid-decade was universally known as ‘documentary’. Taken out of context (especially on Google Images), these pictures can often seem quite similar, but understanding the divergent formats of dissemination is crucial. For the communist photographers of the Workers Film and Photo League, a photograph was a useful but provisional object that witnessed civil struggle, printed cheaply on pamphlets and radical magazine covers (such as Labor Defender or New Masses), or for projections on slideshows to strikers, as counter-propaganda to mainstream media. By contrast, the considerably more numerous photographs of the liberal New Deal relief agencies, chiefly the Resettlement and Farm Security Administrations, were placed in a government archive, and appeared in world’s fairs, photo-books, and mass media magazines such as Life and Look, constituting a body of ‘official images’. In a way, interpreting the meaning of photography involves considering the experiences of the original audience holding the magazine, book, pamphlet, or print.

Despite its feted radical reproducibility, a photograph can nonetheless be a precious object. I have been reminded of this when fumbling with prints, wearing obligatory white gloves, under the steely gaze of nervous American museum curators. The photographer Paul Strand, who is the subject of the article I am currently writing, believed so strongly in photography’s materiality that for many years he refused to allow publishers to reproduce his works, because the commercially printed version would no longer be a photograph, as he saw it, but a degraded copy. Unwilling to compromise, he suspended still camera work and instead channeled his compassion and anger during the Depression into making documentary films. Throughout his career, he made long exposures with large or medium format cameras, rather than a lightweight apparatus such as a Leica, the favoured device of snapshooters, and developed the results on platinum paper or as photogravures. These richly detailed prints offer a completely different experience to mass media or radical press productions.

For all its practical advantages, PowerPoint tends to flatten out all of these distinctions. In teaching American photography, I show original photo-books and magazines (alas having no vintage prints to hand) to students, and ask them to write photo essays as an assignment. Such exercises help to engender a sense of the power, and responsibility, of editorializing pictures, and contribute to enhancing visual literacy, an important skill for our image-saturated lives.


What are your thoughts?