British photographic history

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Call for Papers: Professional Photography and Amateur Snapshots: Reconstructing Histories...

Photography is not just a technology for documenting life: like most technologies, it is itself a powerful agent of social change. The presence of the photographer turns us all into performers: almost all aspects of life – from high politics to consumption, from violence to sex – change for and through the gaze of the camera. The habit of being photographed has become so ingrained that we are barely conscious of it, and yet, we constantly play to the camera. And even where it is temporarily absent, our behaviour is no longer naive; we see it through the prism of photographs of similar scenes, which we re-enact, appropriate or try to subvert. What is more, the role of photographer and photographed are no longer separate.  From the early decades of the 20th century, the ranks of professional photographers were swollen by a growing army of amateurs, ranging from the dedicated and technically-versed practitioner to the more casual family snapshotter, typically equipped with small, portable and affordable cameras.  The mass production of photographic images that resulted not only provides a window onto aspects of the human experience on which written sources provide no or only very mediated evidence.  It was itself a social and political practice that transformed and transforms the social worlds we inhabit.

Around 1920, László Moholy-Nagy predicted that “the illiterates of the future will be the people who know nothing of photography, rather than those who are ignorant of the art of writing.” In 1992, W J T Mitchell noted the same deficit, and called for a “pictorial turn” in the humanities and social sciences. Another twenty years later, the study of photography is still often characterized by work in the art-historical tradition focused on the work of key individual photographers.   At the same time historians often draw on photographs to illustrate their work, yet rarely explore the transformative impact that the images they reproduce have exercised.   Meanwhile, however, a growing body of work is emerging (for instance within ethnography) that illuminates photography as social and political practice, examines diverse types of amateur photography and sheds light on popular engagement with different genres of photography.  Our conference seeks to bring together scholars from a range of disciplines to contribute to this emerging debate about photography as something we study not just for its aesthetic properties, but as a social practice, and as an archive of knowledge and power.

To this end, we are now inviting paper proposals for an interdisciplinary conference to be held on 27-29 June 2013 at the University of Nottingham, UK. Papers will be pre-circulated, and presenters will be invited to introduce their main hypotheses, and talk us through 5-10 key images at the event itself, which will be framed by a keynote and a roundtable. Our aim is to explore photographs not just as documents or reflections of a historical reality around them, but as active interventions in that reality. We are interested in papers that address photographers as actors in particular contexts as well as those that focus on interactions between photographers and their subjects, the performance of those who act in front of and for the camera and the relationship of photographers and those photographed in co-producing the resulting images.

We particularly invite submissions that explore the relationship and the changing and blurring of boundaries between professional and amateur photographers, and between private and public/published photography.   How did amateur photographers respond to the published images that surrounded them? Did they imitate, modify, subvert, or indeed ignore existing conventions regarding ‘good photography’ or (under particular circumstances/regimes) an officially sanctioned gaze? And to what extent did professional photographers respond to or seek to influence the practices of amateur photography?   Papers may also wish to explore how we place the amateur snapshot (or, as some historians have called it, the story of ‘mass participation in photography’) into photographic history.  Finally, we would like to invite submissions about the practices concerning the popular viewing, use and circulation of professional and amateur photographs, as well as the paratexts surrounding them, ranging from photo albums and illustrated diaries to captions or articles.

Paper proposals of c. 500 - 750 words should be submitted by email to and by 31 January 2013. Speakers will be invited to submit a paper for pre-circulation of c. 3,500 words plus up to 10 images, to which they will speak at the conference in 15-minute slots, followed by ample discussion time. There will be no conference fee for speakers, and we shall provide lunches and refreshments. Speakers will, however, have to cover their own travel expenses and the cost of subsidised university accommodation. After the  conference, selected speakers will be invited to contribute to a special issue we have been commissioned to edit for the journal Central European History

Call for Papers

“Professional Photography and Amateur Snapshots: Reconstructing Histories of Influence, Dialogue and Subversion”

27-29 June 2013

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