Photo-Objects. On the Materiality of Photographs and Photo-Archives in the Humanities and Sciences

15 – 17 February 2017

Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut

Palazzo Grifoni Budini Gattai
Via dei Servi 51
50122 Florence ITALY


Lorraine Daston, Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin
Elizabeth Edwards, De Montfort University, Leicester

Photographs are not only images, but also historically shaped three-dimensional objects. They hold a physical presence, bear traces of handling and use and circulate in social, political and institutional networks. Beyond their visual content they are now increasingly acknowledged as material “actors” not only indexically representing the objects they depict but also playing a crucial role in the processes of meaning-making within scientific practices. Thus, photographs lead a double existence as both pictures of objects and material objects in their own right.

Most scientific disciplines rapidly adopted photography as an important research tool to document everything from excavation sites, costumes and artworks in museums to snowflakes under a microscope – through photographs such objects of research, were detached from their original surroundings, put in standardized and transportable formats, newly contextualized and made comparable. Especially the material qualities of photographs have shaped their adoption in the various disciplines by affording certain types of uses. Inscriptions in and the handling of photographs made “photo-objects” applicable to the sciences and humanities. This way they could be classified, archived and thus satisfy the positivistic demand for “objectivity”. The formation and definition of many academic disciplines is therefore not conceivable without photography. These processes were encouraged by the foundation of specialized photo-archives as interfaces of technology and science. They were and still are laboratories of scientific thought, in which objects of all kinds are part of a dynamic and material system of knowledge, interacting with and reacting to each other – from “photo-objects” in their various manifestations to storage furniture, card catalogues, inventory books, reference lists, prints and illustrated publications.

Taking photographic materiality as its premise the conference will analyze the epistemological potential of analog and digital photographs and photo archives in the humanities and sciences. Contributions from all disciplines are welcome and will be discussed from a comparative point of view. These contributions can including case studies as well as theoretical or methodological reflections. Comparative presentations are especially encouraged. The conference also aims to critically examine the conceptualization of photographic materiality and mobility through such terms as “biography”, “itinerary” and “network” from a methodological and self-reflexive perspective. Apart from the material aspects of photographic practices in the humanities and sciences, topics of interest may include (but are not limited to):

  • the circulation and distribution of photographs,
  • the construction of methods through the handling and use of photographs in the various disciplines,
  • arrangement, classification and working processes in photo-archives,
  • as well as photographs in different institutions (i.e. archives, museums, research institutes and laboratories).

Part of the conference will be a workshop on the “Photo-Objects” project.

View the conference programme.

Contact: Julie Baernighausen
Academic collaborator BMBF project ‘Foto-Objekte’