Introduction to the conferenceDOI
The video-recordings presented here were made at the conference Photography and Britishness, held at the Yale Center for British Art on November 4 – 5, 2016. The conference was the result of a collaboration between the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London, and the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino—three research institutions that have a converging interest in British art. The conference sought to investigate the various ways in which notions of “Britishness” have been communicated, inflected, and contested through the photographic image. It was not a conference about the history of photography in Britain, or about British photography. Rather, it sought to consider the nature of the relationship between photography and Britishness: the notion that photography can capture images of Britishness, at the same time that our sense of what Britishness constitutes is produced by the photographic image. A key question for the conference was whether Britishness can have a photographic referent—or whether it is itself an effect of representation. Speakers at the conference approached these questions from a wide range of perspectives and focusing on a diverse number of photographic materials—from family albums and studio portraits to advertisements, reportage, and aerial photography—which demonstrated the complexities and instabilities not only of the term Britishness, but also of the medium of photography.
The conference was opened with an introduction by John Tagg. The videos included here are presented in the order they were delivered.
Session 1—Imperial BritishnessDOI
Sean Willcock, Photographing Imperial Sovereignty: Colonial Britishness and Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Nineteenth-Century India
How did the camera instantiate British sovereignty in imperial contexts during the Victorian period? The ability of photography to objectify and “other” colonized populations has been well documented, but the e cacy of imperialism as a mode of imperial governance was as much a function of imagining shared political horizons as it was about constructing divisive racial hierarchies. This paper focuses on the deployment of the camera during a moment of acute political crisis in nineteenth-century India, when both the signi cance and the scope of British power were highly unstable, arguing that photography’s unique formal features enabled colonials to picture a precarious imperial sovereignty as a viable mode of geopolitical administration. The leveling aesthetic of photography—its capacity to draw heterogeneous peoples into what Christopher Pinney has termed a “common epistemological space”—meant that it could serve as a visual register for the elusive conn- ective tissue of imperial subjecthood, e ectively reifying a useful political abstraction. Yet, as much as British sovereign authority could be embodied by this visual logic, British identity could simultaneously be dissolved by the homogenizing grammar of the medium. This paper therefore examines how colonials grappled with photography’s technical and formal possibilities in ways that attempted to forge a viable imperial polity while preserving a sense of privileged Britishness. Looking in particular at the palliative, diplomatic role played by the photographic portraiture of Dr. John Nicholas Tresidder in the immediate aftermath of the Indian Rebellion (1857–58), this paper assesses how the new visual technology in ected imperial Britishness in complex and unpredictable ways.
Jeff Rosen, Julia Margaret Cameron, Prince Alamayou, and the “Secret of England’s Greatness”
In June 1868, as Great Britain was concluding its war with Abyssinia, the British army stormed the mountaintop stronghold of King Theodore, deposing the child Prince Alamayou, leaving him orphaned and alone. In July, the young boy was transported from Africa to Freshwater on the Isle of Wight in the care of a British officer. Soon thereafter, he was escorted to Julia Margaret Cameron’s studio, becoming the subject of numerous photographs that Cameron copy- righted on July 23, 27, and 29. Cameron clearly hoped to take advantage of the popular news of Britain’s military triumph as much as Queen Victoria’s expressed interest in his welfare and future upbringing. On July 15, 1868, for example, the Illustrated London News wrote the following: “Theodore’s son is at present staying in the Isle of Wight with Captain Speedy. He is to be brought up as the son of an English gentleman, with the view of his entering the Indian Civil Service.”
This presentation examines Cameron’s photographs of Prince Alamayou along two distinct axes: Britain’s so-called civilizing mission to educate and shape the world in its image de ned her rst approach to portraying the Abyssinian prince. As a result, she initially depicted the child as an unworldly African, providing a model for his later portrayal as an English gentleman. In the second, related axis, Cameron depicted the Prince and his attendants in allegorical compositions representing the victorious and the vanquished, subjects that acquire special meanings in the context of British colonialism. In her photographs, Cameron portrayed the Prince as emblematic of his country’s defeat, but she also appropriated his image to embody the Victorian myth of Britain’s altruism and benevolence as a conquering power, embracing the same theme of magnanimity that is found in Thomas Barker’s contemporary print, The Secret of England’s Greatness.
Holly Shaffer, Victoria Photographic India, circa 1900: The Material of Revolution
In the late nineteenth century, the Poona Photographic Company in western India produced an album titled “Victoria Photographic General.” On each page, the image of Queen Victoria is set within a landscape of swirling vines, elephants, and Indian and British dignitaries. At the center of a diagram of subservience, the Queen also watches over a con guration of rulers, entrepreneurs, and photographers with competing colonial and nationalist a liations. The album is a portrait of society, photography, and revolution. In this paper, I focus rst on the album’s materiality, and then on the transferal of its design across media and anti-colonial purpose. In the format of imperial photographic albums and of carte de visite, the album is also in dialogue with indigenous traditions of portraiture and painting. Unbound by the photograph as contemporary documentation, the album includes photographs of drawings and lithographs of historical personages to fuse media with ornamental design into a lineage of portraiture and artistic practice.
In the second portion of the talk, I examine how the material chain of portraits intersects with Indian nationalists’ reuse of the album’s format to serve revolutionary rather than colonial ends. On the one hand, nationalists de led Victoria’s image while committing violent acts against the empire. On the other, the album o ered a unique compositional format ripe for appropriation. The high-ranking Scindia Maharaja, for instance, had portraits painted in the palace to depict Indian nationalists. Drawing on images from across India, and history, the mural program approximates the album’s format while collapsing photographic with painted time. A group obeisant to Victoria in the album coalesces into a messianic guard on the walls. The album therefore identi es the photographic means of spreading Britishness across its empire, while its subsequent adaptations of media and content transform it into a tool of anticolonial resistance on Indian visual terms.
Session 1 - Panel discussion chaired by Martina Droth
In this panel discussion, chaired by Martina Droth, the speakers from Session 1—Sean Willcock, Jeff Rosen, and Holly Shaffer—answer questions from the audience.
Session 2—Globalized BritishnessDOI
Jill Haley, The Colonial Family Album: Māori and Photography in Nineteenth-Century Otago, New Zealand
With the start of British settlement in New Zealand, the indigenous Māori were caught in a period of transition and a surging tide of modernity. By the 1820s, sealers and whalers had settled at the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island and formed relationships with women of the local Kāi Tahu tribe. Their mixed-ancestry children were faced with increasing British in uence, rst with missionaries and then immigrants to the New Zealand Company’s Otago settlement established in 1848. These newcomers brought British goods, technology, practices, and knowledge, and Kāi Tahu became immersed in a British-colonial world that reshaped their lives. Rather than resisting the new in uences or being subsumed by them, many Kāi Tahu incorporated aspects of British life into their traditional Māori customs and constructed a new identity. Photography was one of the British practices that Kāi Tahu embraced in their changed world.
This paper considers how Kāi Tahu used photography to shape and communicate their new colonial identity through a case study of a single photograph album. Compiled by the Parata family, a nancially advantaged and politically elite mixed-ancestry family, this album o ers the opportunity to explore Kāi Tahu engagement with photography. As soon as commercial portrait studios appeared in the Otago colony in the mid-1860s, Kāi Tahu went to have their likenesses taken. The photographs they commissioned of themselves followed the same portrait conventions as British immigrants and bore little resemblance to the ethnographic “type” photographs of Māori produced by professional studios for the commercial market. Photography enabled Kāi Tahu to participate in modern British living, but it also tapped into elements of traditional Māori culture and values, allowing the old Māori world and new British one to be expressed simultaneously. Through photography, Kāi Tahu constructed a new British colonial identity.
Rotem Rozental, Picturing an Empire: British Aerial Photography in the Middle East
Hovering above British colonies in the Middle East, this paper examines the early beginnings of aerial photography, its interventions in the region during and after the First World War, its impact over the image of the landscape and, crucially, of the ways in which outsider beholders perceived their national image. A consideration of the tensions between Bavarians and British squadrons, who struggled for dominance in a practice termed as “aerial colonization,” as well as the journey of this photographic viewpoint from East to West, unveils reciprocal relationships in the landscape: formed between surveyed territories, occupiers, and Western viewers. This study therefore goes beyond approaches that situate aerial vision in light of dichotomies between visibility and invisibility, or Paula Amad’s understanding of aerial photography in a “fluid relational context,” to suggest this view from above rede nes the limits and capacities of surveillance in civil spaces.
More recently, Eyal Weizmann observed that Winston Churchill’s 1920 support of aerial colonization tactics as means to secure control over occupied territories, introduced a different kind of imperial rule, which substantiated itself upon complete exposure of the edges of a crumbling empire. These previously censored images, as well as the technologies used to produce and preserve them, might therefore uncover a crucial moment in Britain’s existence and demise as a colonizing kingdom. In recent years, these photographs surface in the international legal sphere, where they are recontextualized as historical evidence by authorities and governments that use them to demonstrate questionable ownership over private lands. This study will highlight this slippage in function, before exiting the courtroom and returning to controlled territories: where ancestral links between these early photographic technologies and present-day drones (and their always already-present viewpoint over the landscape) are revealed.
Orla Fitzpatrick, Contested Britishness and Photographs of the Belfast Blitz of 1941
This paper will demonstrate how photographs of the aftermath of the Belfast Blitz of April 1941 were co-opted to reinforce the Northern Irish state’s Britishness and its allegiance to the crown. German air raids resulted in spectacular changes to the streetscapes of Belfast, and it is the manner in which photographs of this event were employed that will be explored. It will include a detailed case study of the photobook Bombs on Belfast: A Camera Record (1942), which was published during a period of state censorship and control. Images of union ags (a persistent trope within the depiction of the state) and visiting royalty amid ruined homes and factories were coupled with textual references to the religious and political a liations of the nine hundred victims. Produced by the unionist Belfast Telegraph newspaper, it refers to Ulster gladly paying the price “of its loyalty to the British Empire.”
Press photographers, members of the armed forces, and amateurs also created images of the attacks and these appeared in a variety of illustrated books, newspapers, and mass-market magazines such as Picture Post. This material will be scrutinized using the tools of design and art history, and material culture. Narratives surrounding the photographic depiction of ruins will be coupled with references to Calder’s “Myth of the Blitz,” in which he questioned the overly positive portrayal of civilian morale. Aspects of postcolonial theory are also applicable to the nascent state. Northern Ireland contained a minority population of Catholics who did not identify as British and for whom participation in the war was not welcome. The role of blitz photography in a rming or negating this contested British identity will be fully explored.
Session 2 - Panel discussion chaired by Chitra Ramalingam
In this panel discussion, chaired by Chitra Ramalingam, the speakers from Session 2—Jill Haley, Rotem Rozental, and Orla Fitzpatrick—answer questions from the audience.
Chaired by John Tagg, with responses from Angela Kelly, Simon Roberts, and Ego Sowinski Ahaiwe
This panel, chaired by John Tagg, brings together three photographers, Angela Kelly, Simon Roberts and Ego Sowinski Ahaiwe, to discuss how their photographic practices intersect with the concept of Britishness. Examining issues such as identity and belonging, immigration and travel, and the documentation of diverse British experiences and identities within the photographic archive, these practitioners reflect on the work of the photographic image in constructing, reflecting and challenging notions of Britain and Britishness.
Session 3—Embattled BritishnessDOI
David Alan Mellor, That Old, Weird England
Swathes of British photography, from Henry Fox-Talbot to the present, have been taken up by impulses to conserve uncanny elements from the past during times of change and tension. A primary figure in this process was the late Victorian antiquarian photographer Sir Benjamin Stone, whose pictures of social worthies, pageants and civic ceremonies, and folkloric British festivals were to become so in uential for young documentary photographers in the 1970s and 1980s—especially for Tony Ray-Jones, Martin Parr, Anna Fox, and Homer Sykes, when Stone’s books were rediscovered at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s. Ray-Jones was rst and chief among the modernizers of Stone by grafting the informalism of the American “New Social Landscape” photography onto a Victorian gothic template that itemized what Stone called “vanishing England.” This paper will deal as much with those dislocating extensions of Stone’s output, which have attempted to renegotiate visions of English identity, sixty and seventy years after his death, as with Stone himself. Now, in the aftermath of the Referendum to quit the European Union, the British imagination is still dominated by tenacious phantoms from its history.
Siona Wilson, State and Documentary: Virginia Woolf’s Feminist Photo-Book
Virginia Woolf’s 1938 epistolary text, Three Guineas, is widely recognized as a foundational work of feminist paci sm. As her second signi cant political essay, after A Room of One’s Own (1929), it is a powerful analysis of the gendered structure of the European nation state on the cusp of the second great twentieth-century con ict. Her argument is structured through a repeated re ection on documentary photographs of the Spanish Civil War and she connects this new liberal-humanist image form to a feminist analysis of the British Empire and the economic legacy of slave-based capitalism. Yet Three Guineas is not typically seen as a contribution to 1930s debates about British documentary photography, nor is it understood as a photo-book. This is largely because the ve photographic illustrations Woolf inserted into the text, drawn from anonymous press photographs of British male establishment figures, were removed from almost all publications following Woolf’s death in 1941. Even Susan Sontag’s scathing discussion of Three Guineas in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) is unwittingly based upon this doctored (that is, unillustrated) version of the book. The excision of these images has thus rendered Woolf’s critical analysis of documentary photography largely opaque. This paper not only presents Three Guineas as an overlooked British photo-book but also argues that it is a profound critique of dominant aspects of British documentary practice of the period. If one of the central loci of “Britishness” in the mid-twentieth century is figured through the visual scrutiny of the working class (the British documentary tradition), Woolf instead turns a wry feminist gaze to the British male establishment.
Lynda Nead, “Life in the Elephant”: The Grain of Post-War Photography and Identity
In January 1949 the weekly illustrated magazine Picture Post published a six-page photo story on everyday life in the Elephant and Castle, a poor and bomb-damaged neighborhood of South London. With words by the journalist Albert Lloyd and original photographs by the Post’s Chief Photographer, Bert Hardy, the article powerfully captures the look and feel of life in the run-down terraced streets and homes of postwar Britain.
Hardy’s images have an immense depth, both materially and symbolically, which convey the layers of time and accumulated meanings of this moment and the qualities of postwar press photography and its ability to capture a particular historic atmosphere embodied in the faces, clothes, shops, and streets of Britain. What exactly constitutes the atmosphere, which is almost tangible on these pages? It is, of course, to do with page design, but above all is in the photographs; in the figures with their sturdy overcoats and sensible hats, queuing for warm eels. This is the distinctive world of postwar austerity, in which Britishness has been condensed to Englishness and refined in the figure of the resolute Cockney enjoying the rst bene ts of the new welfare system and enduring ongoing shortages and rationing.
The history of twentieth-century press photography is conventionally told through the revolution in camera technology, but the look of Picture Post owes even more to the etchers and printers who translated the photographic image into layers of ink and who, along with photographers, created the pictorial atmosphere of the nation in the postwar years. It is through an understanding of the materiality of the photographs in Picture Post that we grasp the empathy between form and subject and the ways in which national identity is de ned pictorially in a moment of historical transformation.
Session 3 - Panel discussion chaired by Jennifer A. Watts
In this panel discussion, chaired by Jennifer A. Watts, the speakers from Session 3—David Alan Mellor, Siona Wilson, and Lynda Nead—answer questions from the audience.
Session 4—Post BritishnessDOI
Mathilde Bertrand, Photography and the “Condition of Britain”: The Photographic Corpus of the Community Development Projects, 1969–1978
In 1969, Harold Wilson’s Labour government launched a vast social action program across Britain, known as the Community Development Projects. Teams of researchers and community workers conducted investigations in twelve areas a ected by poverty, to assess the effectiveness and coordination of social policies at a local level. Under this program, resource centers were set up locally to encourage community improvement initiatives. Conclusions drawn in the “inter-project reports” criticized the government’s conception of poverty as the result of individual and cultural factors and pointed instead to structural factors in the production of inequalities. Thirteen photographers were commissioned by the projects to produce documentary reports on their activities and to provide photographs for use in the nal reports of the CDPs. These images function as documents of an era marked by economic, cultural, and social transition, with a focus on conditions in poverty-stricken areas. They depict the consequences of industrial, economic, and housing policies on working-class communities but also document e orts to develop campaigns locally.
The photographic corpus of the CDP allows a con ictual narrative of British identity in the 1970s to emerge. It also re ects debates over the politics of representation and the critique of social documentary photography, which developed in Britain at the time. This paper presents the rst results of a research on the photographic archive of the CDPs, complemented with interviews with some photographers and former workers. It addresses the issues of the nature of the photographers’ implication in the projects, the position of these images in the context of evolutions in the British photographic sphere, and their role in the radical social criticism of the 1970s.
Anna Arabindan-Kesson, Landscape, Interrupted: Ingrid Pollard and the Diasporic Imagination
In the late 1980s, the British artist Ingrid Pollard created several bodies of work (Pastoral Interludes, Seaside Series, Oceans Apart) that explored the intersection of landscape and national identity in the heyday of British multiculturalism, and in the aftermath of the Brixton Riots. This work has most often been read in relation to the placement of (Black) figures within rural landscapes. The presence of these bodies—recalling hidden histories of colonialism —gesture toward the ambivalent meanings associated with “Britishness” and “blackness,” and in turn, materialize the exclusionary logic embedded in constructions of national identity. In part due to the work of scholars such as Stuart Hall, Kellie Jones, Eddie Chambers, and Kobena Mercer, black British artists are receiving renewed attention for their contributions to British art and modernist art practices as a whole. In this context, my paper attends to Pollard’s art historical quotations—her use of nineteenth-century photographic and representational processes—as well as her verbal and visual experiments to explore her relationship to the “Britishness” of landscape representation. Pollard’s black subjects move through the landscape, in an ambivalent space, revealing themselves to be, like tourists or travelers, not quite at home.
All three of the above series draw on several elements of British landscape painting and the tourist culture it was embedded in from the late eighteenth century onward: romanticism, the picturesque, the photographic album, and the postcard. Pollard’s provocative depiction of landscape evokes Wordsworth’s romantic “wanderings.” But in her photographs, such wanderings emerge from a di erent kind of mobility—one based on oceanic crossings and cultural translation—that appears as a form of historical disruption, or repurposing of, the lineage of associations that have coalesced between landscape, subjectivity, and nation in British art. By focusing on her strategy of interruption, one that moves viewers between memory and desire, I show how Pollard constructs a diasporic art practice that decenters constructions of the “British” artist as they emerged in the artistic and political discourses of the 1980s, with important implications for us still today.
Emilia Terracciano, “Letting My Hair Loose”: Revisiting Victorian Legacies in Contemporary Sri Lankan Photography
Within British feminist studies of colonialism, modernist issues are often treated as if the goals of modernization were easily shared by western and colonized women. This paper attempts to dispel the myth, suggesting that to examine gender in a colonial context is to embark upon a historical analysis of power, class formation, and gender. Feminists continue celebrating the aesthetic of British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron as a powerful rebuttal to Victorian patriarchal notions of feminine subjectivity and perceptual mastery. But in the narrative binding of the feminization of photography to Victorian mythologies of motherhood, propriety in the British imagination breaks down when we consider Cameron’s oddly ethnographic photographs of indentured Tamil female laborers from Ceylon. In contrast and as a point of departure, this paper explores Sri Lankan photographer Anoli Perera’s critique of Victorian femininity. Speci cally, it considers how Perera’s performative approach to studio photography may subvert Victorian notions of female comportment, virtue, and narrative gaze by using a powerful symbol of female sexuality: the sitter’s hair. Beyond the idea of a protective veil, disheveled hair is turned into a form of resistance in these images.
Session 4 - Panel discussion chaired by Sarah Victoria Turner
In this panel discussion, chaired by Sarah Victoria Turner, the speakers from Session 2—Mathilde Bertrand, Anna Arabindan-Kesson, and Emilia Terracciano—answer questions from the audience.
We are grateful to our speakers for allowing their presentations to be filmed, live streamed, and recorded for this issue of British Art Studies. We want to thank our partners and collaborators who made the conference possible and worked with us on its conception and development. Our conference committee consisted of John Tagg, Distinguished Professor of Art History at the University of Binghamton, who spent the autumn of 2016 in residence at Yale as the Andrew C. Ritchie Visiting Scholar; Jennifer A. Watts, Curator of Photography at the Huntington; and Chitra Ramalingam, Lecturer in History at Yale University and Research Associate at YCBA; all three worked closely with us on shaping the conference programme, as well as chairing the sessions at the event itself. Filming the conference for online presentation entailed a significant team effort. At the Yale Center for British Art we especially thank Arnold Boles, Media Technician; Paul Harding, Chief of Operations; Sarah Kraus; Senior Administrative Assistant in the Department of Research; Jane Nowosadko, Senior Manager of Programs; and Ronnie Ryz, Senior Associate of Communications and Marketing. At Yale Media Services we are grateful to the Classroom Technology and Media Specialists who assisted at the event: Heather Gwynn, Calvin Stoner, and Remo Capello. The Yale Broadcast Center oversaw video and production, and we are immensely grateful to Patrick Leone, Director; Doug Forbush, Associate Director; Guy Ortoleva, Video Producer/Editor; and last but not least Jude Breidenbach, Associate Producer, who additionally undertook the task of post-production. This conference was the second to have been organized collaboratively by the YCBA, PMC, and the Huntington. The first took place at the Huntington in December 2015, and focused on portraiture. We are thankful to Amy Meyers, Director of the YCBA, Mark Hallett, Director of Studies at the PMC, and Steve Hindle, W.M. Keck Foundation Director of Research at the Huntington, for supporting the continuation of the collaboration.
About the authors
Sarah Victoria Turner is Deputy Director for Research at the Paul Mellon Centre. Sarah is the founding co-editor of British Art Studies, an award-winning, open-access journal launched in 2015. She works closely with colleagues at the PMC to develop digital projects that enable new ideas and narratives about British art to circulate beyond the physical walls of the Centre. She is the co-editor of The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018, an open-access and peer reviewed digital publication consisting of texts from over 90 authors.
Martina Droth is Deputy Director of Research, Exhibitions and Publications, and Curator of Sculpture, at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven. She is co-editor of British Art Studies, and chair of the Association of Research Institutes in Art History. Her research focuses on sculpture and interdisciplinary approaches to practice, materials, and modes of display, with a particular emphasis on British sculpture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her recent exhibitions include Bill Brandt | Henry Moore (Yale Center for British Art, The Hepworth Wakefield, and the Sainsbury Centre, 2020-2021) and Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery (Yale Center for British Art and the Fitzwilliam Museum, 2017-2018).
- 28 November 2016
- Review status
- Peer Reviewed (Editorial Group)
- CC BY-NC International 4.0
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- Cite as
- Sarah Victoria Turner, Martina Droth, "Conference Proceedings: Photography and Britishness", British Art Studies, Issue 4, https://doi.org/10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-04/pbconference