A selection of old black and white photos, spread across a white surface.

What lies around the edges: the unseen value in our photos

In life drawing, there is an exercise that asks artists to sketch the ‘negative space’. That is, the areas that the subject does not occupy, be it a background, or just the darkness by the crook of an elbow. The purpose is to remove preconceptions of shape and to see more clearly what is actually in front of you. And while in photography, we often see the conflict between art and documentation, it is the same observation of what may not be present that has it has contributed so much to our view of the world.

A visual and historical anthropologist, Professor Elizabeth Edwards has spent her career in the study of photography and has been a lecturer at the University of Oxford, and Director of the Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University, Leicester. In her studies, she has examined photography in many societies and at every level, and seen what it can tell us about people, place and purpose. “For most people photography is about who they are, where the belong, and who their ancestors are” she explains. “In many ways, one could say that from about the mid-nineteenth century, memory becomes completely revolutionised because of photography. Suddenly people who had no visual record of themselves, of who they wanted to be, suddenly had access to this.” It was not an overnight shift. As with all new technology, at its inception, photography was expensive, but this did not lessen the desire to be photographed and, indeed, the act of heading to a local studio in the 19th century was moment of aspiration – a means to ‘present’ yourself to the world, both now and for future generations.

While images of Victorian families look the very formal and sober-seeming, they speak of a society concerned with their place on the social scale – even those with less means. “Every small market town had a photographer, who was fulfilling the photographic desires of the local community. Factories had photo clubs where you’d put in a ha’penny a week and eventually, by lottery or a rota system, you could go to the studio and get photographed,” says Prof. Edwards. “Photography became a way of self-representation for all but the very poor, for whom even a ha’penny a week was out of the question. And so, it becomes a really important way of feeling who you are in the world.” In this respect, she says, the photographer’s place in society was as something of “a magician, who changes people into the social icon that they want to be.”

A collage of colourful photographs, including pictures of people, places, landscapes, flowers and objects.
For future historians, the printed image will be more important than ever.

Discovering ‘the edges’ – a new way to reach histories

While the grandeur of the early studios and images of famous figures are important and fascinating, it’s the gradual democratisation of photography as the 20th century progressed, when people became able to afford their own cameras, that tells us so much of what history would otherwise leave behind. For these subjects and photographers, they are capturing a lived moment, something of real importance to them that deserves preserving. For an historian and anthropologist, it answers so many of the quieter questions about societies. “I think that’s what is so important about these photographs that we tend to overlook as merely vernacular. No, they’re a majority practice. Every photograph is an experience that somebody lived through.”

While not strictly the lived experience of everyday people, Prof. Edwards cites the example of the great photojournalist, Don McCullin, whose retrospective at Tate Britain last year contained images from when, as a young freelancer, he found himself at the building of the Berlin Wall. “He turned his back on the wall and photographed the crowd. It was so interesting. All these gestures of amazement or horror – the kind of thing you would never hold historically in any other way.” Obviously, McCullin’s images have crossed from photojournalism to art in a way that most captured images do not, but in observing the observer and finding life he succeeds as a social historian too, extending our documented knowledge of the world and adding to it through human experiences that are normally off-camera. “This is why I love photography,” says Prof. Edwards. “We always focus on the apparently main content of a photograph, but actually it’s what’s held at the edges that is so interesting.”

A “Cinderella” that fulfils a need for knowledge and identity

These ‘edges’ are a huge source of valuable information. Local historians all over the world have archives filled with rich resources spanning many, many generations and visually map a changing world. “Local history libraries, which are very much the Cinderella of photographic studies, have been collecting photographs of their local region and local people since at least 1900,” explains Prof. Edwards. “The great historian Raphael Samuel pointed these out in the 1980s, recognising their importance as because they connected photography to communities, and communities to photographs.” And while the contents are often an occasional source for journalists or form nostalgic local chronicles of a bygone era, the minutiae of these communities, and the everyday lived experiences they record, can provide us with fascinating social histories – and can also provide important answers to the questions of today.

During her work with indigenous groups – Native Americans, First Nations from Canada and Aboriginal Australians – it was clear that photography was very much tied to issues of land rights and legal challenges around discrimination and access to public services, such as education and healthcare. “People were trying to map their own presence and photography became a really important part of that, both locating archival material which could demonstrate that you occupied that land for example, but also people were stripping back the colonial layers of photographs and looking underneath,” she says. “The phrase used was that we ‘looked past’ the photographers view and excavated these photographs from our own perspective.” Elements of photography continue to be a means to demonstrate identity and build strong histories, even more so in the digital age.

We always focus on the apparently main content of a photograph, but actually it’s what’s at the edges that is so interesting

The moment and the memory: ‘Excavating the image’ in a digital world

It may sound somewhat surprising to hear Prof. Edwards describe her work in archaeological terms, but it is true that much of what she is searching for lies under the surface, unseen. But how does this translate to a period in time of an imaging boom? How does one even begin to find value, context and hidden histories of the billions of photos taken every day in the modern world? Her answer: in a way, future historians simply won’t be able to. She believes that the ‘why’ of photography has an added dimension, one that is less permanent, less tangible. “I think photography was always about anticipated memory, about being able to look back in the future. And the act of making an image is not necessarily about anticipated memory any longer,” she says. “Most photographs are taken now to stress contemporary identities – ‘I’m in this club, I’m at this restaurant, I saw this person…’ – It’s circulated on Instagram, put on Facebook and it’s about the statement of the moment. Indeed, some of the social abuses of photographs happen because images outlive their intended moment – they were not intended to be ‘historical’, seen in the future”.

While moments are fleeting and many, at these volumes it is evident that not all will hold any great treasures or answer pressing questions in the future. In fact, a great deal of today’s digital images will simply be deleted. However, Prof. Edwards strongly believes that the physical image will continue to retain its perceived value. “It’s a conscious act to bin them now,” she says. “My view of the way people use photographs is that it’s actually going back to what people did in the 19th century. In that they make material objects of the special images about special moments in their lives – weddings, christenings, special holidays and so forth – and those take material form and will survive, for a while at any rate. To the frustration of historians, most will simply disappear in the end.” And while there are some digital archives, Prof. Edwards acknowledges that they will be a “drop in the ocean of what survives of the billions of photos taken every day.”

This is important and speaks volumes of the transitional period in which we find ourselves, where our documentation of self sits both in physical albums and pictures in frames, but also in the cloud. It’s testament to the fact that we need both the tangible and the intangible in order to fulfil the way we wish to present ourselves to the world. And while we share our present selves freely, it is the images where we define ourselves and anticipate the value of our memory in which we invest the most effort. And it is through these pictures, of weddings and parties, newborns in the arms of their mothers and young adults graduating, that historians and anthropologists, like Professor Edwards, will continue to excavate, long after the subjects have gone, seeking out the silent significance that lies around the edges.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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