Formats of Photographs

Format and size are possibly the most crucial factors in the affective impact of photographs in the gallery space. They mediate these ’affects’, the immediacy of the photograph and the ease by which it is apprehended by museum visitors. As such formats are key sites of what Corinne Kratz has termed “rhetorical repertoires.” [i] These repertoires themselves shift with both technological changes in photographic reproduction and in relation to developments exhibition techniques, themselves often integrally linked to epistemological changes.

The reproducibility of photographs and their ambiguous status as objects in museums has subjected them to forms of manipulation not used on other classes of museum object. While there is often a need to use reproductions of photographs because of conservation requirements, the often casual reformatting and remediation of photographs often leads to the loss of integrity of the photographic object as an historical statement, whether a piece of photojournalism or a domestic photograph. Repurposing and remediation of photographs work together to create meaning in the gallery, but this is often at the expense of the historicity of the photographs themselves. Reproduction and manipulation, remediation and repurposing, are, of course, intrinsic to photography as a medium.  At one level these processes are part of  photography’s social purpose and thus are not problematic in and of themselves. What becomes more problematic is the way in which photographs are asked to play a didactic role in an historical or cultural narrative, but are then subject to these processes of purposeful format change to make them fulfill specific functions within in the museums. For instance acts of repurposing often creating deceptive similarities of format and size. Yet these acts of remedition on the part of curators and designers are seldom noted. The museum visitor is not told anything about the status of the photographic object at which they are looking. However more recent displays at Pitt Rivers Museum for instance have included this kind of information, captions such as: “Reproduced from an albumen print, c.1880….”, “a detail from a photograph taken in 1914 by….” . The status of the image being used in the gallery and its relationship to an historical object, so important in a colonial context, is made clear to the viewer.

Enlargement is a common practice. First it enhances legibility in the museum space, but it also determines the visitor engagement with the image. Enlargements of the kind used in photographic murals create an affective tone for the exhibition and position the body of the viewer in specific ways in relation to the image. Depending on content, they enhance the drama of a narrative or they contain and naturalise it. Photographic murals are also often bled to the edge of the image and the edge of the space it occupies, in ways that underplay the fragmentary nature of the photographic image. An example is in the South East Asia galleries of the Tropenmuseum where unidentified and undated black and white photographs of dances and rituals are enlarged to wall size in order create a cultural ambiance for the objects of display while at the same time suggesting an undifferentiated ‘past time’. Another example of the use of photographic murals in the in The Cultural History Museum in Oslo. It this case the photographic murals emerged as part of the shift to displays of cultural groups, introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, that in effect acted as ‘ethnographic monographs’. In this process objects were moved out of the showcases and instead displayed as large tableau where photographic murals created the background and context for these displays.

Size is also often related to cropping which effectively reformats the photograph. Sometimes this is to focus attention, or to transform images from one visual rhetoric to another. For instance in the Imperial War Museum’s ’From War to Windrush’ exhibition, a wide range of photographs – family photographs, identity photographs, service photographs, were cropped to render them in the form of the genre of military portrait to produce a equivalence of meaning.  The remediated and cropped images were also displayed in the gallery backlit.  Light therefore becomes a major factor in their apprehension, shaping the viewer’s response.

Sometimes cropping is used to make an image ‘acceptable’. For instance at the Indies Centre of Remembrance Museum, Bronbeek, a well-known photograph of a massacre site in the Aceh war as been cropped to remove the piles of bodies, creating a relatively benign photograph of troops.  Only the eagle eyed, or those familiar with the original image, will see a body poking into the bottom of the frame at the very bottom of the case, obscured by other objects. While there are ethical arguments for such a cropping in that particular case, it does show how cropping radically changes the meaning of a photograph and its performance in the gallery.

However it would appear that often cropping happens entirely for design reasons. As one Dutch curator commented “why is it designers think they can take a perfectly good historical object and change its meaning to suit themselves.” In the Wellcome Gallery of the British Museum, a photograph of a group of women from New Guinea is shown small in its entirety, supporting other classes of objects, and then cropped parts of the photographs dispersed through the rest of the case in order to ‘people’ it. In the course of our research we saw images that had been cropped, reversed, coloured and uncoloured to create affect in displays.

Conversely in the Africa Galleries of the British Museum the only photographs used are very small reproductions within the caption boards. Their size indicates their marginal, almost apologetic, status within the gallery’s aesthetic narrative. While dates are give, there is, with the exception of a photograph described as ‘from a postcard c. 1900’ no indication of the original format or material form of the photographs, is given. Their reformatting reduces them to mere information to ‘illustrate’ other objects, without their realist force disrupting the force of those objects.

Increasingly however, photographs are used in displays as museum objects in their own right as opposed to merely illustrative material. Consequently, this shift has led to some museums to attempt, simultaneously, to make content accessible and give visitors a sense of the original use and impact of photographs. For instance the Museum of London’s highly successful London Street Photography (2011) showed stereocards as objects but used enlargements next to the frames to enhance the informational impact of the images without contextualising them.  In its ‘Imperial City’ galleries, the same museum uses vintage prints, often no larger than whole plate (8.5 inches x 6.5 inches) and with commensurately low light levels for conservation purposes. They are deployed within the cases themselves, fully integrated with other classes of object. This strategy maintains the material forms in which the photographs played a part in the communication of ‘the imperial city’.  This might be frustrating for some visitors who expect photographs simply to deliver information in the museum. However, the use of the whole plate vintage prints, give a sense of the practices of visualization at a given period and the way in which photographs and their circulation was integral to the making of the ‘Imperial city’ itself.

Similarly, the exhibition ‘Collected Sites’ at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 2004 used original material throughout the exhibition to communicate the ways in which photographs as objects flowed through the networks of anthropological knowledge-making. It showed wallets of photographs, boxes of lantern slides used to teach and therefore reproduce the values of colonial anthropology, albums, and catalogue cards. It showed the reverses of photographs with multiple inscriptions, and series of reproductions of photographs. The original formats therefore contributed to the understanding of the acts and processes of photography and therefore its role in the contexts of anthropological and colonial knowledge.

A growing trend is to show photographs in ways that actively connect visitors to their original use and meaning. In the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol a group of domestic photographs of British families in the colonies were framed and hung in a quasi-domestic style, in order to enable visitors to recognise themselves in the formats those photographs and connect to those histories.  As one UK curator commented “if you have a problem with your terminology, if you’re not sure what words you can use, if you’re not linguistically very rich, having a photograph is a fabulous way of being able to talk about something without having to have the words.” The strategy also had practical considerations, which at the same time extended the possible ways in which photographs could be understood “ I had wanted to do was find a way of exploring the context of photos more, which is of course very hard, you can’t actually have everyone pawing your, pawing over your photo albums.  But I did want to do something whereby you might have an image and you put a border round, you put a border on it, we did various cropping and said, well what do you feel about that?  Or you take it off and you see the original caption but you take another sheet off and you see, oh, this is the photo that’s next to it, and why have they stuck those two together?.”

In the Tropenmuseum Amsterdam, the act of photography as made the central figure in the galleries on colonial collecting, A model with a large plate camera points the lens towards a photo-mural of tropical landscape and its inhabitants. In a further example the exhibition I permit myself to send you a bundle of Malagasy things in the University Museum of Bergen used the format of the photographic album to present further visual and textual information on the history of the museum’s Madagascar collection and its links to Norwegian missionaries and the mission movement. The format of the photographic album was used not only to emulated the way in which many photographs, including mission records, were experienced by their original viewers. The albums were also used to provide a reflexive space in which to explore the visual culture of the missions, their colonial contexts and the processes of ethnographic collecting. The use of this format therefore kept the agency of photographs central to wider discussions.

These different strategies are examples of the way in which the formatting and presentation of photographs in museum radically change their meaning. They also point to the way photographs and their work is evaluated in museums.

[i] Corinne Kratz, “Rhetorics of Value”, Visual Anthropology Review 27(1): 29.