Sara Dominici is a Lecturer in Cultural Studies and a member of the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture (IMCC) at the University of Westminster, London (UK), where she also convenes the MA in Art and Visual Culture. Her research interests include history and theory of photography; media history; the relationship between cultural technologies, media and modernity; archival theory and practice; and, more broadly, the interdisciplinary study of visual culture and cultural studies. Dominici is currently working on the cultural history of photographic technologies, focusing in particular on the relationship between mobility and visuality from the late nineteenth century. She is the author of Travel Marketing and Popular Photography in Britain, 1888-1939: Reading the Travel Image (Routledge, 2018), and has published in journals including History of Photography and Photography and Culture.
"The Camera as Techno-Cultural Object: Teaching Photography without Photographs"
Historiographies of photography generally focus on photographs as the privileged points of access for studying photography. While the recent turn towards the materiality of photographs has drawn attention to the physical qualities of images, three-dimensional objects that accrue meanings through their being produced, circulated and used (an approach that has shown how visual content and photographic document often tell different stories) such scholarship continues to support a predominant understanding of the medium as a representational tool. Yet, photography is not just about the photographs themselves, or histories of particular photographs: it is also a technological apparatus whose conditions of materiality are themselves instrumental in facilitating or obstructing certain visual practices. To teach photography without photographs, then, means making the lived historical experience of photography’s users, and not the product of their practices, the subject of photography’s (other) histories: this is not simply a history of photographic technologies and their functions, but a cultural history of photographic technologies and associated functions. That is, a history that focuses on people’s engagement with photographic technologies in order to understand how this shaped the relation with the world one lives in and, in turn, conditioned technological possibilities.
In this paper I propose one way of doing so by offering a reflection on photography as such a transformative tool. I do so by focusing on the development of camera technology in relation to the conditions of possibility that such materiality afforded in the context of late nineteenth-century modernity; and by taking as a case study the experience of ‘cyclo-photographers’, the earliest users of cameras on wheels who, starting in the early 1880s, experienced first-hand both the limitations of cumbersome and fragile glass-plate cameras, and the advantages of being in control over one’s mobility and visual experiences. I consider the engagement with both the new mobility of the cycle and the camera as complementary modern cultural technologies that, supporting each other in creating new experiences of looking, led to a desire to use photography in new ways. In other words, the engagement with these cultural technologies shaped a distinctively modern visual experience that, in turn, fuelled the desire for a camera technology through which one could actively engage with the possibilities of seeing enable by cycling itself. Compact cameras, one could argue, developed in response to such desire for a tool that could be used to engage with modern life. As the paper shows, an historically situated analysis of the materiality of media technologies can offer an alternative point of access for the study (and thus teaching) of photographic culture and, more generally, histories of our visual culture and its diverse practices.