by Constanza Caraffa and Tiziana Serena. De Gruyter, December 2014. 354 p. ill. ISBN 9783110331813 (pbk.), $70.00.
Reviewed June 2016
Photo Archives and the Idea of Nation is part of an interdisciplinary series of scholarly activities including texts and conferences on the topic of photographic archives as they relate to photography and academic study. This book is a collection of essays presented at the fourth conference in this series held in Florence, Italy in 2011.
With a topic so broad in scope, it would be nearly impossible to examine all the complex ways in which photographic archives have been employed in the construction of national identity throughout the world, but this text does an excellent job of presenting a diverse array of perspectives. The book focuses predominantly on Europe and North America, with the first two sections featuring essays on ethnic heritage and post-revolutionary identity construction in the modern era. The third section on post-modern uses of photography contains essays on nations in the Middle East and Africa. Additionally, the introduction leads with an analysis of Akakurdistan.com, a Kurdish photographic archive project undertaken by non-Kurdish photographer Susan Meiselas, which has been a seminal catalyst for discussions of the role of photographic archives in national identity across academic disciplines.
These essays also underscore a series of dichotomies: individual photographer versus collective identity, the ideology of nation versus geographic boundaries, and photograph as art object versus historic document. One essay on photography in the American West illustrates these tensions. The emergence into the commercial art market of early photographs of the American Western landscape taken by white male pioneers makes it increasingly difficult for scholars to focus on situating these works in their historical context: the photographers were participating in the displacement of Native Americans through their exploration and settlement of the West. This is a central question in the study of photographic archives by art historians: which photography is art and which is document? The answer often lies in the identity of the photographer. Thus, this passage also strikes at the larger issue tackled in these essays, regarding the political role of photographic archives in nation building—the unique power of the dominant group to construct a national visual narrative through photographic documentation.
This book features a vibrant, eye-catching cover design and images are high-quality black-and-white reproductions. The intended audience and writing style are advanced academic, and the subject matter will be of interest to art historians and professional archivists alike, as well as scholars of a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. This text and conference series address a burgeoning area of interdisciplinary scholarship that has never before been so thoroughly addressed in a monograph.