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: Hybrid materiality

Stefanie Klamm

With the advent of photography, images became the objects of scientific findings in new ways. Yet photography cannot be described as a collective singular, either in material or in medial terms. In particular, the material aspect of photographic practices is essential if we are to address the hybridity of the medium of photography. This relates, on the one hand, to the manufacture of photographs and, on the other, to their use in scientific contexts.

The materiality of photographs has been the subject of intense debate, also in photographic archives, since the 1990s. In anthropology and historical geography and archive science, writers such as Joan M. Schwartz, Elizabeth Edwards, and Christopher Pinney have ensured1 that photographs are no longer reduced to their visual content but must be seen as three-dimensional objects which are shaped by history and use and are mobile. Thus, they play a decisive role in the process of knowledge development and in scientific practice.2 Attention is paid thereby to the various forms of use through which new and different traces attached themselves to the photographic object.3 The focus on photographic practices and observers’ perspectives, which, without taking materiality into account, is doomed to futility, has also played a major role in visual studies.4 Research into the history of science, which analyzed the manufacture of visual representations in science and the associated concept of objectivity, has also contributed to a broadening of perspectives on pictorial practices.5 Addressing physical and material aspects of photographs also played an increasing role in art history, as in the case of Geoffrey Batchen, who described the photograph as “an image that can also have volume, opacity, tactility, and a physical presence in the world”.6 This designation of the photographic via its materiality is a precondition for understanding photography as a hybrid medium.

When Francois Arago presented the daguerreotype in 1839, he developed a catalogue of scientific tasks which could be accomplished using it; at the same time, it became clear that photographs would have to be arranged if they were to be used for scientific purposes.8 Hence, from the beginning, photography was signed on to hybridity, the result of a range of manual and mechanical techniques that were transferred to the medium. Furthermore, to be scientifically useful, photography must also be combined and sometimes overlaid with other media, especially drawing and three-dimensional image techniques. Thus, often it was not until a manual change had been made to a photograph that it became scientifically useful, while, on the other hand, it seemed to question its own special qualities as a scientific object at the same time. This resulted in a decades-long discussion of the representative qualities of photography and its differences from other available media such as painting, drawing, or casting, leading to a productive interaction of existing media and technologies.

Each scientific area raised its own application-related arguments regarding this interweaving of various media. In contrast to widespread claims, the scientific usefulness of photography was and is related to its connection and interplay with other recording systems such as cartography, photogrammetry, and photometry (see also Introduction to Part 1, “Hybrid measurement”). In archives, photographic prints were subjected to classification grids and transformed into data that could be used by scientists via designations on cardboard carriers and rubber stamps. The productive force of the photographic for the sciences and humanities is based, therefore, on its hybrid status between object of an image and image of an object.

Especially for field sciences such as archaeology, with its manifold visual tasks, but also for medicine and the natural sciences, the combination of different pictorial processes has been essential. It would be wrong to speak of a rivalry between various media that could be distinguished from one another. Rather, they were constantly interacting with each other and, through their use, were interwoven with one another. Or, as Alexander Streitberger puts it in his contribution, various media interacted “in order to form a visual system of representation”. Hence, as Stefanie Klamm demonstrates in her piece, photographic and cartographic representations of the dig landscape complemented each other; one image technique harbored different information for the scientific observer than the other. But it was only together that they yielded the desired information. This applies in particular to the portrayal of archaeological findings such as earth marks. Furthermore, the diorama, as analyzed by Alexander Streitberger, was a hybrid form in which painting, photography, taxidermic specimens, and collected natural objects interacted to form an illusionist display.

To the same extent, the materiality had to be interfered with decisively, both before and after the picture was taken and while the image was being developed and manufactured. Hence, archaeological excavations were prepared for photography through arrangements and leveling and the locations of finds had to be documented (Stefanie Klamm chapter). It was essential for medical imaging that the body of the patient be arranged to meet the requirements of X-ray technology and radiosurgery, so that meaningful and useful images could be created in the first place (Kathrin Friedrich chapter). In this context, Kathrin Friedrich remarks that “imagability” was created by this set-up of human body, instruments, and media. Only through this, she notes, could therapeutic actions take effect.

Annotations on photographic prints and their cardboard carriers are aimed at providing additional narratives and evidence (see chapters by Stefanie Klamm and Vera Dünkel). Graphic properties were also transferred directly onto the photographs, almost blending with manual drawing, e.g., in the processing of X-ray images, as Vera Dünkel describes. In both cases, differing epistemic and aesthetic properties combined. Photographs were also used in the production of dioramas for the processing of the backgrounds to and surroundings of the animals portrayed (see Alexander Streitberger chapter).

At the same time, photographs were materially transformed through various forms of processing (e.g., printing processes; see Introduction to Part 3, “Hybrid reproduction”). They were cut out, retouched, or traced over, like the chronophotographs of Etienne-Jules Marey, which had to be graphically processed in order to be reproduced along with the text and have an epistemic effect (Linda Bertelli chapter). This was necessary for the creation of scientific working objects that could be compared and contrasted. And, last but not the least, these practices were decisive for the training of the scientist’s observational gifts and enabling their disciplinary sight, as Linda Bertelli lays out in her piece.

The hybridity of photographic materiality, in particular, demonstrates that subjective values and evaluations formed and form a decisive aspect of the putatively purely chemically/mechanically produced and thus “neutral” and “objective” medium of the image. It is in the interwovenness of various media that it becomes apparent that the debates about authenticity and truth cannot be approached from the point of view of photography alone.


  • 1 Elizabeth Edwards, ed., Anthropology and Photography 1860-1920 (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press 1992); Elizabeth Edwards, “Photographs as Objects of Memory”, in Material Memories: Design and Evocation, eds. Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward and Jeremy Aynsley (Oxford et al.: Berg, 1999), 221-236; Elizabeth Edwards, Raw Histories. Photographs, Anthropology and Museums (Oxford/New York: Berg, 2001); Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, eds., Photographs, Objects, Histories: On the Materiality of Images (London: Routledge, 2004); Christopher Pinney, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson, eds., Photography’s Other Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); Joan M. Schwartz, ‘“We Make Our Tools and Our Tools Make Us”: Lessons from Photographs for the Practice, Politics, and Poetics of Diplomatics’, Archivaria: The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists 40 (1995): 40-74; Joan M. Schwartz and James Ryan, eds., Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination (London: I. B. Tauris, 2003).
  • 2 This is also one of the fundamental premises of the collaborative project “Photo-Objects. Photographs as (Research) Objects in Archaeology, Ethnology and Art History” with the project partners Photothek of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max Planck Institute, Kunstbibliothek and Antikensammlung, both Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and Institut für Europäische Ethnologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (
  • 3 See, e.g., the analysis of forms of use of photographs of cultural monuments in Elizabeth Edwards, The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885-1918 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).
  • 4 For example, Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990); Shawn Michelle Smith, American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).
  • 5 Jennifer Tucker, Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); Lorraine Daston and Peter Gali-son, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007).
  • 6 Geoffrey Batchen, Photography’s Objects (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Art Museum, 1997), 2. For art history see Jens Ruchatz, “Kontexte der Präsentation. Zur Materialität und Medialität des fotografischen Bildes”, Fotogeschichte 124 (2012): 19-28.
  • 7 For an extensive historical-critical discussion of the material access to photography in photography history and photography studies, see also Costanza Caraffa, “Photographic

Itineraries in Time and Space. Photographs as Material Objects”, in Handbook of Photography Studies, ed. Gil Pasternak (London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), 79-96.

  • 8 François D. Arago, “Le Daguerréotype”, Comptes Rendus de [’Académie des Sciences 9, no. 8 (August 19,1839): 250-257, quoted according to Wolfgang Kemp and Hubertus von Amelunxen, eds., Theorie der Fotografie. vol. I, 1839-1912, new print of edition Munich 1979-2000 (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 2006), 51-55.
  • 9 For the constitution of “working objects” in the sciences, see Daston and Galison, Objectivity, 19-27, 53.

5 “Imageability”

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