Words and Photos: Geoffrey Batchen’s Writing About Vernacular Photography

Geoffrey Batchen shares his passion of photography through words: he reflects on and writes about photographs. A leading figure in the field of photographic studies, Batchen has written numerous books, including Each Wild Idea and Forget Me Not, as well as curated many exhibits. Currently a professor at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand, and graciously took time to answer a few questions about his interactions and thoughts concerning vernacular photography.

Geoffrey Batchen shares his passion of photography through words: he reflects on and writes about photographs. A leading figure in the field of photographic studies, Batchen has written numerous books, including Each Wild Idea and Forget Me Not, as well as curated many exhibits. Currently a professor at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand, and graciously took time to answer a few questions about his interactions and thoughts concerning vernacular photography.

Photographer unknown (United States), Portrait of a seated woman in a checked dress holding a (reversed) open daguerreotype of a man, c. 1850, daguerreotype in leather case, 9.4 x 16.3 x 0.8 cm open, Collection of Geoffrey Batchen, New Zealand

What first brought you to reflect on vernacular photography and focus your academic career towards this field?

My interest in vernacular photography was initially prompted by an essay I was writing about contemporary artists who incorporated photographic images into their sculptures. I began to notice that there were large numbers of sculptural photographs—photographic objects—from the nineteenth century in antique stores. But no one had written much about this kind of photographic practice. So I curated a small exhibition of these kinds of object in 1997 and then wrote a methodological essay about the need to develop an intelligent way to think about them. This new academic focus happened to coincide with a concerted push by some American dealers to expand the market for collectable photographs, so that snapshots and framed tintypes and similar items began to appear for sale in galleries. My own interests have moved on, but the expansion of the field to include a much wider range of photographic practices and objects has remained and now most young scholars just take it for granted.

Photographer unknown (USA), Dog on car, with photographer’s shadow, c. 1950, gelatin silver photograph, 11.6 x 7.0 cm, Collection of Geoffrey Batchen, New Zealand

When you began writing about vernacular photography, what were you most interested in expressing or documenting?

At first, I was simply interested in bringing attention to a diverse range of photographic objects and practices that had not been much written about. But I soon recognized that these objects represented a significant challenge to the prevailing history of photography. This history, dominated by the values and tropes of art history, was not well equipped to talk about photographs that were overtly commercial, hybrid and banal. In other words, the history of photography left out most types of photograph. So my interest became a more methodological and theoretical one, in an effort to forge a new way of thinking about photography that could address the medium in its entirety.

Makers unknown (United States), Portrait of a man, c. 1910, etched and painted tintype, paper mat, wood frame, 48.5 x 43.5 x 10.0 cm, Collection of Geoffrey Batchen, New Zealand

In some of your essays, you argue for the inclusion of vernacular photography in the broader history of photography. Do you feel that your writing has influenced how people conceive of photo history?

I try and argue for much more than that. I suggest in my writing that any substantial inclusion of vernacular photographs into a general history of photography will require a total transformation of the character of that history; it will require a new kind of history altogether. My writing may have encouraged this idea, but I am just one of many scholars who have been pursuing this goal. Indeed, I would say that this idea is now the norm. The next step is to look beyond this and engage other similarly neglected areas of photographic history. For example, a lot of research is now being undertaken on the photography produced in places outside Europe and the US, such as China, Indonesia, and parts of Africa.

Makers unknown (United States), Portrait of husband and wife on their wedding day, c. 1890, albumen photograph on card (cabinet card), rosette, veil, wooden frame with glass, 40.0 x 31.5 x 7.5 cm, Collection of Geoffrey Batchen, New Zealand

In what ways are snapshots imbedded with the personality of the photographers or subjects being photographed?

Snapshots are complicated objects. They are both unique to each maker and almost always entirely generic. They happily adopt the visual economy that mediates most photographic practices: same but different. You might say that every snapshot is an authentic copy of a prescribed set of middle-class values and familiar pictorial clichés. That doesn’t make them any less compelling as pictures, especially for those who treasure them. But it does make them difficult to write about.


Makers unknown (Mexico), Portrait of a man wearing a tie, c. 1950, fotoescultura (painted gelatin silver photograph on wood, glass, wood frame), 34.5 x 30.0 x 7.0 cm, Collection of Geoffrey Batchen, New Zealand

Through your analysis of numerous collections of vernacular photography, have you noticed the presence of any national or regional themes?

It is certainly possible to recognize the existence of regional practices of photography. I have written, for example, about the making of fotoescultura in Mexico and about a specific form of ambrotype in Japan. No doubt one could claim to see some regional aspects of snapshots made in the United States that distinguish them from ones made in Australia or, say, Indonesia. But the more challenging task is to talk about those things that can’t be seen. For example, snapshots made in Australia and China may look exactly the same to my eye, but it stands to reason that they don’t mean the same thing (after all, access to personal snapshot cameras is a relatively recent phenomenon in China). We need to learn how to write about those kinds of differences.

Photographer unknown (American), Mary V. Castlebury, age 16, with photographer’s shadow, November 1942, gelatin silver photograph, 12.9 x 9.9 cm, Collection of Geoffrey Batchen, New Zealand

In an essay from the book Now is Then, you write that understanding snapshots involves: “a back and forth between these orphaned examples of snapshot culture and our own prized photographic reliquaries, between cliché and sublimity, sameness and difference…” Could you talk more about your idea of oscillation between the “sameness and difference” of snapshots.

That essay was about the difficulty of writing a history for a photographic practice that produces an infinite number of more or less identical products. For a start, how do you go about selecting some snapshots to stand in for all of them? I suggest that you might choose to talk about some of your own snapshots, thus allowing a scholar to address their very real emotional resonance (an important, even central, quality of the snapshot which will otherwise be absent from your account). Alternatively, I propose borrowing from the example of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, where he describes a family photograph but refuses to reproduce it for us. He thereby forces each reader to project his or her own snapshot into that rhetorical absence.

Makers Unknown (Japan), Standing man with bowler hat on a pedestal November 19, 1892, Ambrotype in kiri wood case, with inscribed calligraphy in ink. 12.4 x 9.5 x 1.5 cm (closed), Collection of Geoffrey Batchen, New Zealand

Would you please explain your role as a curator for the photographic exhibit, and book Forget Me Not that toured from Amsterdam, to Reykjavik, to New York?

I have always curated exhibitions (my first was shown at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro in 1982), seeing this as an important aspect of my work. Forget Me Not came about as a consequence of a lecture I gave in Amsterdam. One member of my audience was a curator at the Van Gogh Museum, Andreas Blühm, and he subsequently invited me to curate an exhibition for his museum on the theme of my lecture. This developed into an exhibition about the relationship of photography and personal memory, featuring many examples of photographic practices where the maker or owner has added something to the photograph—writing, paint, hair, butterfly wings, wax flowers—to enhance that photograph’s memorial capacities. I found many of these objects in antique stores but also borrowed some from museums in Europe and the US. They were installed in thematic clusters, along with extracts from texts suggesting the complexity of the experience of remembering. Forget Me Not was also shown at venues in Iceland, the United Kingdom and the USA. I have since curated several more exhibitions, the most recent one being shown at the Izu Photo Museum in Japan in 2010. It was devoted to the idea that photography has the capacity to suspend subject, photographer and viewer between life and death. It again incorporated many hybrid photographic objects, including a number of Japanese examples (see: http://tapreview.org/curated/batchen/batchen.html). I am currently working on four more exhibitions on various themes.

Makers unknown (United States), Blonde and brunette hair arranged in a brooch, c. 1850, human hair, in an elliptical metal brooch, with a daguerreotype portrait of a man set in verso, 3.6 x 2.8 cm, Collection of Geoffrey Batchen, New Zealand

Are you simultaneously working on any writing as well?

Yes, I edited an anthology of essays about Camera Lucida that was published in 2010. Titled Photography Degree Zero, it featured essays by English and American scholars such as Victor Burgin, Rosalind Krauss, Michael Fried, Carol Mavors, and Margaret Olin. I have also co-edited another anthology due out later this year and titled Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis. I am currently working on a book about the first two commercial photography studios to open in London and am also developing another book about photography’s relationship to reproduction.

Interview by LG