Photo-Objects

Since their establishment as disciplines, archaeology, art history and ethnology have all worked not only with objects but also with photographs, which became substitutes for their research objects. Starting from the perspective of material cultural studies, the research project considered documentary photographs as three-dimensional objects formed by historical processes, with these functioning in social and cultural contexts as repositories of layered knowledge.

The aim of the research collaboration Photo-Objects was to show in a comparative study how the formation of methods in the humanities, the development and dissemination of photographic techniques, and the establishment of specialised photography archives in the decades before and after 1900 were mutually dependent. The research focused on the techniques and practices of scholarly work on and with photographs. These have a dual status as objects, representing objects indexically while also being manifest objects through their materiality. The project sought to explore the scholarly potential of photographic archives in museums, universities and research institutes, as well as to develop a model for the interdisciplinary networking of different collections. At the same time, it was able to provide new insights into processes of canon formation.

The holdings of the four partners can serve as prototypical for the use of photography in the three disciplines, thereby allowing a comparison and exchange of methods and results. Nevertheless, they should also be considered and contextualised as individual cases. In the Antikensammlung (Collection of Classical Antiquities), the project investigated the photographic documentation of archaeological excavation campaigns in Europe (emphasising Greece) and Asia Minor. Its focus pertained to evaluating historical methods, excavation techniques and depictions of artefacts from the perspective of the history of science, as well as considering the photograph as a research tool from the standpoint of object biography.

The wide range of competencies and photo-archiving practices found in the diverse institutions (museum, university, research institute) in the network allowed the project to elaborate its central theses: the specific materiality of photography in its manifold manifestations; the alterations of the photographs resulting from their different applications and modes of use; and the overlayering of the image content through various types of academic discourse.

The exhibition Unboxing Photographs: Working in the Photo Archive was on display at the Kunstbibliotehek at the Kulturforum from 16 February to 27 May 2018.


Collaboration: Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut (Photothek), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Antikensammlung, Sammlung Fotografie) and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (Institut für Europäische Ethnologie)
Funding: Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) as part of the funding initiative The Language of Objects – Material Culture in the Context of Social Developments.
Academic Team: Dr. Martin Maischberger (leader), Dr. Petra Wodtke (research associate), Victoria Kant (student assistant)
Duration: March 2015 to February 2018