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Professor Joan M Schwartz, Queen’s University, Canada
Professor Felix Driver, Royal Holloway, University of London
Visiting Professorship

Photographs, archives and the geographical imagination

As a leading authority on the history of photography, archival theory and print culture, and specifically on the role of photographs within the circulation of geographical knowledge, Professor Joan M Schwartz will share her insights and expertise through a series of seminars, workshops and lectures

Stereoscopic albumen print of Niagara suspension bridge in 1859
[William England], Niagara Suspension Bridge, 1859. Single (below) card-mounted stereoscopic albumen prints, Library and Archives Canada,. single PA-165997; stereoscopic PA-200389 (recto), PA-200390 (verso).

In the mid-nineteenth century, geography – not in the sense of a rigidly defined academic discipline, but rather more broadly as a popular quest for knowledge about the world, its places, and its peoples – had a firm hold on the Victorian mind; photography was envisioned and employed as a way to foster, facilitate and further its pursuit. My research explores the enthusiastic reception and rapid spread of photography as grounded in the pull of the geographical imagination, the authority of on-the-spot observation and the growing popularity of travel. In particular, my ideas are rooted in the symbiotic relationship between photo-graphos – light writing – and geo-graphos – earth writing – with their common agendas to see and, thereby, know the world. 

Images, such as the Niagara Suspension Bridge, when viewed against the utilitarian outlook of the nineteenth century, offer an opportunity to recast photographs as spaces of geographical knowledge production and consider how they were embraced as an aid to fieldwork, a vehicle of vicarious travel and a form of visual documentation. This view of the celebrated bridge that spanned the Niagara Gorge just downstream from the falls was taken by William England, dispatched to North America by the London Stereoscopic Company in 1859 to fill a gap in the company’s inventory. It was part of a series praised by The Art Journal for bringing people into ‘closer and safer acquaintance with the New World than all the books that have been written on the subject’ (1 July 1860). This acknowledgement of photographs as a means of seeing across space underpins my geographical perspective on how to look at, think about and use photographs as sources for scholarly study.

Albumen print of Niagara suspension bridge in 1859

The Niagara Suspension Bridge warrants unpacking as a cultural text, laden with prevailing ideas about Niagara Falls and North America, suspension bridges and engineering feats, nature and the sublime, geological time and human evolution. Its existence in both single and stereoscopic formats highlights the importance of material form in the circulation of geographical knowledge, and its preservation in both a fine art museum and a national archives points to the dispersal of multiple images and the influence of institutional mandates and disciplinary perspectives on their scholarly study. 

As a historical geographer, photographic historian and archival theorist, my interests coalesce around the role of photographs (as images) and photography (as a social practice) in the processes by which people came to know the world, situate themselves in it, and articulate their relationship to it. I am interested in the meanings invested in and generated by a photographic image over the course of its multiple biographical trajectories. I proceed from the central premise that, embraced as an agent of sight to extend the powers of human observation, the photograph acted as a site of agency, where the subjective experience of space and time was expressed and shaped. In asking not only what the photograph is of, but also what it is about, what it was created to do, how it circulated and what effects it produced, my research recasts photography as a tool of the geographical imagination and investigates its visual sedimentation as a photo-geographical archive.

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