Elizabeth Edwards

Immersive histories: photography and the absorption of the past

In this paper I am going to consider the role of photographs in creating a saturating awareness of the past in public spaces, notably the street and the open-air as sensorially immersive spaces. In this, I am departing from technologies of immersion in the usual sense, and from self-conscious and intentional engagements with the visual. I draw on aspects of Nigel Thrift’s not unproblematic notion of non-cognitive awareness and on his attempts to model the fugitive practices that exist in dynamics of susceptibility at the interstices of everyday life. I consider about how photographs operated as an unintentional encounter with, and immersion in, the past which generated a low level sense of the value of that past. I am going to look at two historical periods, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the availability and visibility of mass topographical photographs, and the early twenty-first century when digital technologies have enabled the widespread use and visibility of those nineteenth century photographs to create to historically-scripted spaces and an immersive sense of historical connection and continuity. Here photographs are used to create an intensification of historical imagination and coherence of sentiment as the immediacy of photographs is used to create banal folded presences of the past, an historical ‘habitus’ which intensifies the space-time of the street. This paper is part of a larger project of photography and the emergence of ‘public histories’.

Elizabeth Edwards is a visual and historical anthropologist and is currently Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the Victoria and Albert Museum Research Institute, London. She is Professor Emerita of Photographic History at De Montfort University, Leicester, where she was Director of the Photographic History Research Centre from 2011- 2016. She is also Honorary Professor in the Department of Anthropology University College London. Until 2005 she was Curator of Photographs at Pitt Rivers Museum and lecturer in visual anthropology at ISCA, University of Oxford, where she is a Curator Emerita and Research Affiliate.

Specialising in the social and material practices of photography, she has worked extensively on the relationships between photography, anthropology and history for over 30 years. From 2010-12, she led European-funded project PhotoCLEC, on photography, museums and colonial memory. She is on the Advisory Board of the National Science and Media Museum (Science Museum Group) and in 2014 received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Visual Anthropology (American Anthropological Association), followed by the Photography Prize of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 2017. In 2015 she was the first photographic specialist to be elected a Fellow of the British Academy. She is currently working on an ethnography of the relationship between photography, history and public histories, and on cultures of photography in museums. She is a co-editor of the book series Photography History: History Photography and is currently completing a book on photography and the practice of history.


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