In addition to all being established as academic disciplines around the turn of the 20th century, archaeology, art history and ethnology all share the fact that they not only work with objects, but also with photographs, which in turn become substitutes for the primary objects of study. Based on the latest studies on the materiality of photographs and photographic archives, the research project “Photo-Objects” considers documentary photographs as three dimensional objects, formed by historical predecessors, which act as repositories of sedimentary knowledge in social and cultural contexts.

The project aims to show in a comparative investigation how the formation of methods in the humanities, the development and dissemination of photographic techniques, and the establishment of specialised photo archives in the decades before and after 1900 were mutually dependent. In doing so, the focus is on techniques and practices of academic work on and with photographs. The latter are “photo objects” in a double sense: not only do photographs reproduce objects, but also, they themselves are material artefacts, due to their physical, affective, historical and transformative qualities. The project aims to explore the scholarly potential of photographic archives in museums, universities and research institutes, and to develop a model for the cross-departmental integration of different collections. At the same time, it can provide new insights into interdisciplinary processes of canon formation. 

Underscoring the interdisciplinary approach to this topic, four research institutions, each with its own photographic collection, have joined forces for this joint project. The network consists of the partners: Photothek at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz (Max-Planck-Institut), the Photography Collection of the Kunstbibliothek and of the Antikensammlung (both Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), and the Institut für Europäische Ethnologie at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

In the Kunstbibliothek’s Photography Collection, the research will be carried out on architectural photographs from the USA and Europe around 1900: photographs by the photographer Frank Cousins (1851–1925) of colonial buildings under threat of demolition on the East Coast of the USA, and the photographic inventory of the architectural publishing house Ernst Wasmuth A.G., documenting exemplary historic and contemporary buildings from various European countries. These enable an analysis of the close connections between photography, the conservation of historical buildings and the viewing of historical and contemporary architecture, as was characteristic for the period around the turn of the 20th century. Architectural photography played a decisive role in forming contemporary discourses on architecture and aesthetics, and in the maintenance of historical monuments.

Thanks to the diversity of skills and photo archiving practices from the context of the museum, the university and the research institute that are gathered together in this research group, the central theses of the project can be developed: the specific materiality of photography in its diverse manifestations, the modifications of the photographs themselves through different forms of application and use, and the interaction of the contents of the images through the various scholarly discourses.

Cooperation partners: Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut (Photothek), Antikensammlung, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (Institut für Europäische Ethnologie)
Supported by Federal Ministry for Education and Research as part of the funding priority “The Language of Objects – material culture in the context of societal development”
Academic team: Dr. Ludger Derenthal (Director), Stefanie Klamm (Research Assistant), Andras Veg (Student Research Assistant)
Project Duration: 2015 to 2018