Sunday, 31 January 2010

British Library Exhibition: Points of View

From LSHG Newsletter, No. 37, (January 2010)

Points of View: Capturing the 19th century in photographs
British Library
96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB until 7th March 2010

Most of the exhibitions run at the British Library are free and many of them are of some interest to socialist
historians. The current major exhibition brings together items from the Library’s extensive photographic archives and is perhaps particularly relevant at a time when we read media reports of increased police harassment of photographers on the grounds that they could be terrorists taking pictures of potential targets. (Being police officers they will never have heard of Google Earth that allows the terrorist to do this from the safety of their hide out.)
The BL exhibition has the hallmark of one of the ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that run at this and similar national institutions in that it is clearly constructed around the materials that the Museum has - which are obviously huge - and the ‘take’ that particular specialists and archivists have on their particular area.
In that sense the exhibition is uneven, designed to appeal to a wide range of visitors and telling a number of different stories rather than focusing on a tightly drawn theme, which some of the smaller BL exhibitions, for example the recent one on 1968, have done.
The general narrative is around how the development of photography from the mid-Victorian period both mirrored the developing capitalist world and helped to shape it.
The exhibition captures the battle for the commercial exploitation of the photo from the 1850s, which can be
summed up by the explosion in personal portraits used as mementoes of visits and calling cards. The underlying commercial mechanism and motive at work remains with us today but the photograph was the first technological development to exploit it, a sort of Victorian version of the society of the spectacle. As one might guess the point is implied rather than explicit in the exhibition itself.
The sections on the imperial gaze and how colonial authorities [mainly British] used photography to classify
and control populations are particularly sharply drawn. The exhibition shows how by photographing and recording things the imperial authority could also in some senses demonstrate power over it. That applied not only to keeping records of geographical locations but also of course of people. In this latter case the imperial idea was to keep a photographic record of ethnic groups which were allegedly in decline, a sort of worldwide Cecil Sharp. The whole thing is ideologically loaded but fascinating for the
Much of the rest of the exhibition shows how photography recorded the developing world and social relations of Victorian capitalism - a world both distant but still at root instantly familiar to us today.

There are sections which reflect the development of industry and of urban environments, but also
interesting sections reflecting the development of photographic techniques. The history of the panorama  is documented as are experiments in how successive  still images could lead to the illusion of movement.

The exhibition provides a fascinating source for historical reflection in a society that is dominated by the image. One issue that might engage socialist historians is the relationship of Marx and Engels to the development of photography and its commercial exploitation. It is not covered in the exhibition but Eleanor Marx noted of her father:

When, after the death of his wife, Marx undertook a long, sad journey to recover his health -- for he wanted to complete his work -- he always had with him the photograph of his father, an old photograph of my mother on glass (in a case) and one of my sister -- Jenny. We found them after his death in his breast pocket. Engels laid them in his coffin.

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