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Local Space/Global Visions: Archives, Networks and Visual Geography Around 1900

Authors: Rice, Shelley
Keywords: photography;photo archives;visual geography;Photoglob AG
Issue Date: 24-Feb-2011
Abstract: This project began as a paper given for a lecture series, 'The Geography of Photography: American Photography,' at the Art History Institute of the University of Zurich in the Fall of 2009. The title of the series intrigued me. What, in the era of Thomas Friedman's 'Flat World,' was the 'geography' of American photography? Can we still, in the 21st century, define a nation's artistic production by the nationality of its maker, or the locale of its production? And was such an idea even valid in earlier stages of photography's history, given the medium's propensity for reproducibility and portability? My interest focused particularly on the moment around 1900 when small cameras, half tone reproduction processes, and multinational corporations came on the scene, and photographic production and distribution expanded exponentially. The creation of a vast network of photographic (and pseudo-photographic) prints in the late 19th century set the stage for the establishment of what can reasonably be referred to as a 'world culture' of imagery. Local representations, stereotypes and conventions, when globally produced, commoditized and exchanged, formed the syntax of an international language, literally the currency for communication between diverse nations, cultures and linguistic groups. For the Zurich project, I began to explore how this historical shift affected what I'm calling the visual geography of 1900. The first stage of the research centered on two very different projects of this era--Alfred Stieglitz's magazine 'Camera Notes' and Albert Kahn's 'Archive of the Planet' in Paris--in an attempt to understand the divergent ways in which significant photographic practitioners comprehended, visualized and manifested the spatial and temporal changes that were transforming their world. While working on this paper in Switzerland, I came across the PhotoGlob AG collection, 11,000 photochrom images (mass produced lithographic color prints obtained from black and white photographic negatives, with colors added by hand) stored in the Central Library in Zurich. Between 1896 and 1911 the Swiss company had subsidiaries in England and Detroit and over 200 independent suppliers on every continent. A branch of the tourist industry, Photoglob AG exhibited scenic views at Universal Expositions, on cruise ships and in Thomas Cook boutiques, and published more than thirty sales catalogues containing at least 12,000 images (including post cards). For a scholar obsessed with visual networks and distribution at the turn of the last century, this was the Mother Lode, and the archives (in Zurich and in the Library of Congress, which houses material from the Detroit subsidiary) quickly became an integral part of the ongoing project. My paper will present aspects of this work-in-progress, some things I've learned from research in these diverse collections. I will be especially interested in focusing on the ways in which the visual geography of this historical moment--its emphasis on networks, franchises, portability and distribution, its inherent tensions between the local and the global, the artistic and the commercial, the elite and mass--can illuminate the perils and possibilities of our own contemporary image world.
Description: Conference paper presented March 25-26, 2011.
Rights: Copyright Shelley Rice, 2011.
Appears in Collections:Photo Archives and the Photographic Memory of Art History, part III

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