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As someone with a background as an artist working in exclusively three dimensions, that is now in a material culture studies program, I have often struggled to view images as objects. I also have a strong tendency to gravitate towards abstraction rather than representation, so something such as a directly representational painting, print, or photograph previously would have been of very little interest to me. Throughout this course, I have noticed a shift in this mindset begin to take place. After physically interacting with various tintypes, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, and other formats, it is hard for me to deny their materiality and objecthood. Cradling their weight and feeling their texture provides a sensory engagement and emotional depth that cannot be experienced visually. The traces of human touch in both the production and handling of the photographic objects can be seen and felt in places such as the worn edges of this cabinet card or the corrosion of this celluloid photo medallion.

The cabinet card is a three-quarter-length portrait of an unidentified woman standing in front of a studio backdrop. The photograph tilts to the left, causing a gap between the photograph’s edge and the border’s edge. The card has significant damage to the top and bottom on the right side as it is creased almost to the point of tearing. There are also general signs of wear and handling on the edges and corners of the card and several instances of splotches and discolorations. The photo medallion, or button portrait, depicts a large peach on a black background with a centered inset photographic portrait of an African American man. The peach design would have been chosen from stock samples provided by the salesman or studio and then applied, along with the photograph, to a sheet of celluloid using heated rollers. The celluloid sheet would then be pressed and crimped over a metal shell. The back of the medallion is covered in significant rust damage and is missing the metal folding easel stand that would have been used for display purposes.

Portrait of a Woman, Cabinet card, Circa 1895–1910s, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press.
Crease under loupe magnification.
Button portrait on tin: man inset against an image of a peach, Circa 1940s, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press. Backside showing rust damage.

This course has presented an array of both practical and philosophical research methodologies, but I have found that a mutually supportive melding of the two provides the most interesting and far-reaching results. Although they often appear contradictory, the findings produced by these two approaches can often perpetuate productive relationships and ways of understanding that could not be achieved by a singular approach. After physically handling the photographs towards the beginning of the course, it was tremendously impactful to then gain the perspectives of a vast group of experienced authors and guest speakers that included librarians, archivists, artists, historians, conservators, curators, and educators, all of whom have utilized these methodologies within their work.

The class reading that impacted me most regarding the philosophical importance of representation is “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life” by bell hooks, as it provides both an individual and universal narrative, incorporating personal experiences with historical facts. Although I have seen many Black portraits in various contemporary art media, I was largely unfamiliar and inexperienced with photographical documentation, histories, and processes. As bell hooks states, “Cameras gave to black folks, irrespective of class, a means by which we could participate fully, in the production of images. Hence is it essential that any theoretical discussion of the relationship of black life to the visual, to art making, make photography central.” [1] This brings me to the realization that my knowledge and understanding of Black contemporary art-making is incomplete without this highly significant visual history. Reading this essay felt like an accessible yet intimate introduction to the history and importance of Black portrait photography and left me feeling both educated and inspired.

The work of artist Wendel White expanded these ideas by depicting the representation and agency of objects within the context of photographic images. As White states in Manifest, “the ability of objects to transcend lives, centuries, and millennia suggests a remarkable mechanism for folding time, bringing the past and the present into a shared space.” [2] During his presentation to our class, I was particularly struck by his photograph of the tintype from the Fenton History Center in Jamestown, New York. [3] Throughout my lifetime, I have seen many photographs of photographs, usually with the intention of simply capturing and transferring the image held within the material, but rarely, if ever, have I seen a photograph that truly captures the materiality of a photograph as an object. In White’s photograph, the tintype has a strong dimensional presence and material evidence of handling [4] that leads me to think about the life that this object has lived rather than just the life of the individual pictured.

The significance of the relationships between the visual and the material continue to simmer in my mind and I feel certain that there is still much contemplation to be done as I exit my first semester of my two-year graduate program. I look forward to seeing the ways in which this course, along with material culture studies, continues to shape my understanding of the relationships between materials, objects, images, and representation, the ways in which meaning is encoded onto objects or images, and the ways in which these representations disseminate information and preserve histories.

[1] bell hooks. Art on My Mind: Visual Politics. New York: New Press: Distributed by W.W. Norton, 1995.

[2] Wendel White. “Manifest.” Southern Cultures 23, 2017.

[3] Wendel White. Tintype, Fenton History Center, Jamestown, NY.

[4] In our class discussion, Wendel White talked about his intentional decision to photograph this object at an angle we are not used to seeing within collections photography in order to capture it’s dimensionality and objecthood. Wear from handling can be seen along the edges of the photograph along with creases and scratches on the surface.

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