Snapshots: Art History and the Ethnographic Turn

Thursday 28 February at 18:30 in EV 1.615
Concordia University

Geoffrey Batchen

This lecture is about art history's worst nightmare-boring pictures. This is the only possible description of the vast majority of photographic  images, which tend to be  predictable, conservative, and repetitive in both form and content.   As a consequence, they do not easily fit into an art historical narrative still anxiously, insecurely, focused  on originality, innovation, and individualism. The study of photography  thus represents a serious problem for the practice of art  history,  just as, say, the snapshot represents a serious problem for the history of photography. How should one go about writing a history for an infinity of generic snapshots? What historical rationale should  one adopt when value judgments no longer seem to be relevant elements  of the historical process? Hal Foster has worried aloud about the  "ethnographic turn" he says is involved in the displacement of art  history by visual culture, a concern that seems to focus on the  relativism he associates with an anthropological model of historical  practice. Through an examination of the problem of writing a history  for the snapshot photograph, my paper will address the othering of  art history that the 'ethnographic turn' apparently entails by  proposing yet another kind of historical model.

Geoffrey Batchen is a professor of the History of Photography and Contemporary Art at the City University of New York. His books include Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography, Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History, and Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance, which accompanied his internationally touring exhibition of vernacular photographs and photographic objects, organized for the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. He is currently working on an anthology of essays for The MIT Press about Roland Barthes's famous book, Camera Lucida.

Snapshot, c. 1953. DeLong family archive.