|Documentary photography and the nature of time |
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By its nature photography is about documenting the present but the selection of the subject reflects on the attitudes of the photographer and the prevailing societal consciousness of time. The Acropolis may be daguerreotyped as a symbol of the glory of Greece or albumen prints made of the Colosseum for the grandeur that was Rome and these are clues to a broader sense of time. There is a distinction between the recording of a building to show its architectural features and the documentation of a building actually in the process of being demolished. If we consider the following photographs of Edinburgh by Hill & Adamson we can add some clarity to the point being made.
PhVHill & Adamson: Edinburgh
The first two are evidence of the construction of the Scott Monument which had its foundation stone laid on 15 August 1840 and was inaugurated on 15 August 1846. The first photographs was taken in 1843 and the second in 1845 after the tower had been completed. The third, also by Hill & Adamson, shows masons working away on the monument in 1843. The first three are about the nature of civic pride but they also carry a subtext of "pride in progress" - they are documenting the creation of a monument. Even if we disagree with whether Walter Scott deserves to be almost deified it has to be seen within the context of the time. The fourth photograph is the one that carries a different message.
PhVHill & Adamson: Lady Glenorchy's Chapel During Demolition (ca 1845)
In 1772 work on the Lady Glenorchy's Chapel was begun and it was a vast building that could seat a congregation 2,000. The building was demolished in 1845 and it is process that is documented in the last of the four photographs. The point here is that Hill & Adamson consciously documented a building that would be lost - they were preserving an image of that which was passed.
PhVThomas Easterly: Destruction of Big Mound
This has important implications as in and age of change few documented the implications of progress with the rare exception of the Destruction of Big Mound documented by Thomas Easterly. Another notable exception would The Society for photographing relics of old London established in 1875 as an initiative by a small group of photographers. If we stay for the moment with architecture the Historic American Buildings Survey - HABS founded in 1933 was to research and photograph old building to maintain a registry. The last two were about recording the state of buildings rather than the fact of their destruction.
Every documentary photograph has within it not only the time that the photograph was taken but how the photographer and society at large conceptualizes time.
- Λ Daguerreotypes of the Acropolis in Athens were taken by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey in 1842.
- Λ Scott Monument, Wikipedia
(Accessed: 18 January 2014)
- Λ Hill & Adamson, "The Scott Monument under Construction", 1843, Calotype print, medium, 20.1 x 14.9 cm, National Galleries of Scotland, Accession no. PGP HA 424
- Λ Hill & Adamson, "The Scott Monument", 1845, Calotype print, Arched top: 15.80 x 20.60 cm, National Galleries of Scotland, Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland (Accession no. PGP HA 434)
- Λ Hill & Adamson, "Scott Monument, masons", 1843, Salted paper print, 19.7 x 14.7 cm, Edinburgh City Libraries and Information Services, Library Item, 4131
- Λ Site of Lady Glenorchy's Church
(Accessed: 18 January 2014)
- Λ Hill & Adamson, "Lady Glenorchy's Chapel During Demolition", 1845 (ca), Salted paper print, 19.4 x 14.0 cm, George Eastman House, Record Id: 1976:0288:0102
- Λ Delores A. Kilgo, 1994, Likeness and Landscape: Thomas M. Easterly and the Art of the Daguerreotype, (University of New Mexico Press)
- Λ Background to The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)
(Accessed: 22 April 2019)
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