Photographs as Records – Records on Photographs: Photo Archives, Art History and the Material Turn

The development of photographic techniques in the 19th century coincided with the establishment of art history as an academic discipline. The chance to assemble works preserved in far apart places on the art historian’s desk, in photographic form, opened new prospects in comparative methods. In contrast to prints, photographic reproductions of works of art gained currency precisely by virtue of their promise of greater evidence. The creation and institutionalization of photographic archives dedicated to the documentation of works of art was one of the consequences. It led from private picture pools to public photographic collections supported by institutions for the protection of monuments, museums and universities. The Photothek of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, founded in 1897, is a special case in point. By focusing on it in a diachronic perspective we shall investigate issues such as the complex decision-making process by which photographs are acquired, classified, stored and used in a photo archive dedicated to art history, in the analogue as well as in the digital era, but also the role played by the agents involved in its history as well as the function of art-historical photo archives as institutions that act as guarantors of the documentary ‘veracity’ of photography. A number of theoretical approaches from the fields of archive and photography studies (agency, materiality) can be fruitful for a theory and practice of art-historical photo archives able to explore their epistemological potential. Documentary photographs are documents not only in relation to the objects they are intended to document, but also – precisely because photography is not neutral – in relation to a whole series of other aspects that are, whether intentionally or not, registered in them. Accordingly, the archive is not just the place in which photographs are preserved, but also that in which their biographies as social objects can be restored to them.

Costanza Caraffa has been Head of the Photothek at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut since 2006. After studying European Baroque architecture and urban history she is now working on documentary photography and photographic archives. In 2009 she launched the international conference series Photo Archives. Among other publications she edited Photo Archives and the Photographic Memory of Art History (2011) and, together with Tiziana Serena, Photo Archives and the Idea of Nation (2015).