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Photographs as documents/photographs as objects: photo archives, art history and the material approach

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This paper aims at demonstrating how the material approach questions conventional hierarchies of photographic value, showing a way to deal with large quantities of photographs accumulated by scientific and scholarly disciplines in their archives.


For generations, these photographs have been considered as pure documentations of the objects represented in them (from artworks in museums to snowflakes under a microscope). Documentary photographs have been understood as mere working tools that can now be easily replaced by digital duplicates. Overcoming the long-established reduction of photographs to their visual content, the material approach shifts attention to masses of anonymous photographs that are often disregarded within institutions because they do not match museum systems of value based on uniqueness and authorship.


Focussing on photographic and archival practices in art history, this paper aims at demonstrating how conceptual and methodological tools such as “agency” and “materiality” can be made fruitful for theory and practice of photo archives able to explore their epistemological potential. A case study from the Photothek of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz allows an insight into historical and contemporary dynamics and practices of photographic archives.


With its interwoven strands of archival practice and academic research, the Photothek unboxes itself as a laboratory for the international, cross-disciplinary debate on the role and function of photographs and photographic archives in scholarship, suggesting a methodological path for the entire field. In conclusion, the paper shows that the first necessary step for a long-term conservation of photo archives is promoting research on the photographic objects.
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Keywords: Agency; Art history; Material culture studies; Photo archives; Photo objects; Photography

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Max-Planck-Institut, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Florence, Italy

Publication date: October 1, 2018

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