SAP Archive: Social Biography

South Asian Photo Archive is a section dedicated to the explore of photographs as objects. In addition to looking at photographs as objects this section examines the idea of the archive. In looking at these idea’s theories from art history, anthropology and cultural studies are used. Each post will explore these topics from a different point of view in order to get a broad picture of the photograph as an object.

Most of the time when we think of photography, we think of the image itself. There is little importance placed on the object of the photograph. Furthermore, in today’s digital world, with Facebook, Instagram and other photo sharing sites there is no physical print. These changing times in photography have lead me to an interest of the object of the photograph. Really this interest was cultivated though out my time at university from learning processes like cyanotypes and salted paper prints to learning the history of tintypes in the United States. These influences plus others has lead me to collecting photographic objects. The first of such objects is the photograph you see above. I am going to explore the photographic object above though the methodology of social biography, a theory pulled from the area of material culture. I will first give a brief introduction to the idea of social biography and how it can be applied to photographic objects and then apply the theory to the photograph above.

I first came across the idea of social biography as it is applied in material cultural studies in the article ‘Material Beings: Objecthood and Ethnographic photographs’, by Elizabeth Edwards. Edwards states that,

“Materiality is closely related to social biography. This view argues that an object cannot be fully understood at any single point in its existence but rather should be understood as belonging in a continuing process of meaning, production, exchange and usage. “

This means that photographic objects have a full life span. They can only be understood if you look at their interpretations over time and the ways in which they are displayed over time. For example, the famous photograph by Dorothea Lange title ‘The Migrant Mother’, was taken with the purpose of documenting the life of migrant workers and displaced families during the Great Depression in the United States during the 1930’s. However, this photograph was subsequently printed in the newspaper and became the image that represented the era and caused concern and compassion in those who saw it. However, this famous photograph has a dark side. Though the faces in the photograph became famous the family was never helped, they never received any money. Today, Americans can contact the Library of Congress and order their own print. Furthermore, the photograph has now entered the realm of art photography. It is studied in photography and art history classes and shown at art museums.

Each photograph has its own story to tell which cannot be told only through the images itself, it is told through the object. The photographic object potentially contains the scars of its life or it bears no scars because it was so well taken care of. However, the point of this line of inquiry is to understand the entire life of the photograph. To understand its meaning to its maker and its viewers across time. Thus, I will approach the evaluation of the photograph above in this manner. I will explore its objectness and what this adds to the photographs meaning. Furthermore, I can only make an educated guess about its original meaning and there is much of its connoisseurship I do not know.

The photographic object above is a square format snapshot photograph (3.25 x 3.25 inches) taken at the Taj Mahal, Agra, India. I do not know the exact date but my educated guess would place the it in the 1950’s to the early 1960’s. The photograph shows a man sitting on a bench in front of the Taj Mahal.  He is wearing pants and a white, short sleeve, collared, button down shirt. His hair is unkempt and so is his beard. He has his hands placed on his legs and he is leaning slightly forward. He does not seem to be smiling but half of his face is in deep shadow so it is hard to tell. Though the image is interesting in its subject matter because it is the classical portrait people want to get when the go to the Taj Mahal, the photograph is worth a closer look because of its other physical attributes.

A close look at the photographic object shows that it has minimal wear and tear. On the front of the print the plastic coating is peeling up at the corners and along the top edge of the paper. On the back of the paper the edges are starting to turn yellow, however, it does not have any glue residue or excess paper on the back to suggest it was ever posted in a photo album. This would suggest the photograph was placed in a box or other container and probably viewed by being pasted around by hand. This would also account for the lifting of the plastic layer on the front of the print.

The back of the photograph contains hand written text about the trip. It says:

Taj – near

Agra India

120° August

Neat & splendor

Many ox-carts & rural roads

People walking then

b (scribbled out) this place. So beautiful

people & marble

built 1600’s

Though this information does not provide the date the photograph was taken it does relate what the author thought was important to remember. The temperature, which I assure you foreigners still discuss today, was probably one of the shocking things they revealed back at home. It also describes a different atmosphere outside the Taj complex than what I experienced last September. There are no longer ox-carts or rural roads. Today, the roads are modern and filled with tuk-tuks. Some of the information is garbled but we know that the traveler found the people and the marble beautiful. We can also read that they found it important to note the date of constructions.

As noted above, I can discern some of the original functions of this photograph. One, to document someone’s trip to the Taj Mahal and two, as a written record of this trip. Between this time and the time in which I acquired the photographic print I have no idea what its story is. I purchased it on Ebay in 2012. I started collecting photographs of the Taj Mahal at this time and it was the first print I purchased.

Thus, for me the photograph serves as a part of my collection of Taj Mahal photographs and as a fetish object. I guess we collect what we fetishize. When I began collecting these photographs I had not been to the Taj, however, now that I have visited the Taj myself I still have an interest in collecting these photographs. For me the photographs of the Taj show its history throughout time. Collecting these photographs reveals many details about the Taj complex over time and are for another discussion of ‘the archive’.

In the end, I am adding to the social biography of this print by making it a part of the South Asian Photo Archive here on the blog. Now its social biography is leading it from the private viewing of the house to the public viewing of the internet. Now the photographic object will be able to be viewed and compared with other photographs from this time period and subject matter. Time will expand the social biography of this object and it will be interesting to see where it leads.

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By |2018-10-12T16:44:25-05:00February 10th, 2017|List, SAP Archive|0 Comments

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

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