Light | Sensitive | Material and The Stuff of Photography

9 May 2019 | Update on Progress

My blog entries are getting sparser because I am now back at work part-time, and continuing the AHRC project on a part-time basis, but also because I am now at the stage of formally writing up the findings and arguments into journal articles and papers. Additionally, the AHRC Leadership Fellowships include what they term “leadership activities” which in my case involves trying to use the funds and the findings to the advantage of a broader community, so I have been organising various events over the last month or so.

These include a talk to staff at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, on May 7th, and an upcoming series of collaborative workshops with Rowan Lear called The Stuff of Photography. These will be held at The Photographers Gallery and the grant secures places for up to 10 artists and researchers. We are in the process of selecting these from applicants who responded to public invitation (they are expected to participate through contributing their own research and ideas to the project). There are also a limited number of places available via the Photographers Gallery here. We have just heard that we have secured two speakers that I admire very much, Prof. Esther Leslie (Birkbeck) and Dr. Louise Purbrick (Brighton).

I am also excited about the conference Light | Sensitive | Material which I am organizing with my colleague Dr. Junko Theresa Mikuriya. Theresa and I have been planning this over the past month, the call for papers is open until 5th June and we have already had a number of really interesting paper proposals. We have two keynotes: Prof. Laura U. Marks, a media art and cinema theorist whose work on “haptic visuality” in cinema and thinking about light, images and algorithms through Islamic philosophy (as well as through Deleuze) offers an interesting challenge to contemporary photography theory; and Prof. Howard Caygill, whose philosophical work around Levinas, Kant and Benjamin raises fascinating questions around art, visuality, technology and photography.

In addition we hope to have several invited speakers for shorter papers. The decision to have keynotes who were not purely photography specialists was a deliberate one: we hope that the conference will enable participants to address very specific themes and case studies in relation to the photographic, and then allow the conference as a whole to frame these within larger philosophical and theoretical ideas. The call for papers can be found here.

I have also been writing some things that extend beyond this project, and to which I was already committed or which have come out of recent conference papers: two chapters on photographic ubiquity and scale in the age of social media, and on ideas about how photographs become forms of emotional expression or conversation in online and mobile media; one chapter on photographic realism in relation to two classic feminist texts (Naomi Schor’s Reading in Detail and Donna Haraway’s “Teddy Bear Patriarchy”) which is also (somehow!) about the Illuminati and the Scottish Enlightenment; and another chapter forthcoming on Lucia Moholy’s classic Pelican book A Hundred Years of Photography. That said, the archive work is not completed (is it ever?), and I hope to clear some time to go back to archival research again soon.


1 March 2019 | On Photographic Worlding

I have been thinking about ways to articulate or express the relationship between photographs as representations, representations of photography — for example, in advertising and in the photographic press — and photography as a practice that is part of a wider set of material practices.

One of the terms I have been thinking about is “worlding”. I first came across the word years ago, in an essay by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1985a). It is from Heidegger, and it’s used by other writers in more strictly Heideggerian ways. However, writing at the height of poststructuralism, Spivak was concerned with texts and with the archive rather than phenomenology. Though she is probably a better reader of Heidegger than most, in another essay from the same year she wrote of her use of worlding as a deliberate “vulgarization of Martin Heidegger’s idea” (Spivak 1985b, 260).

Spivak was referring to Heidegger’s essay “The Origin of the Work of Art”. It’s notoriously difficult and I am aware that attempting to write about Heidegger in a short blog post on photography is probably a bit daft and could justifiably be viewed as simplifying. Nevertheless, and ploughing on, this passage stands out to me:

“The world is not the mere collection of the countable or uncountable, familiar and unfamiliar things that are just there. But neither is it a merely imagined framework added by our representation to the sum of such given things. The world worlds, and is more fully in being than the tangible and perceptible realm in which we believe ourselves to be at home.” (Heidegger 43)

Worlding is a process of establishing meaningful relationships, it emerges in and through communication between people but also importantly in our use of equipment, our coping with things. This is in contrast to earth, which (for our purposes) I am going to take to mean stuff in general, entities that are not yet gathered together, brought into use and into sense.

Spivak pointed to the rift that Heidegger posits between earth and the world, to question the way in which colonized space is treated by the colonizers as “uninscribed earth” though she acknowledged this is a false analogy (Spivak 1985a, 253) . She reinvented worlding as a process of overwriting an already existing world, as if it were a tabula rasa. Worlding produces a cartography, produces subjects and “others”, and simultaneously produces a historical record (an archive).

As Spivak’s analysis suggests, by making “world” into a verb, you can start to talk about an ongoing productive process which both writes and overwrites; which divides and defines and yet at the same time always posits an entirety; which is simultaneously meaningful and material, not a projected-on representation or superimposed “social construction” but integral and lived. The oddness in the word “worlding” is to do with the fact that we think of worlds as wholes — as self-sufficient ecosystems, as spheres, contained domains, not as something incomplete. It’s this counter-intuitive aspect that makes it a good word to think with.

Where Heidegger sees bare earth, Spivak sees another world, violently overwritten, and impossible to reconstitute. Returning to Spivak’s essay to find a word has made me rethink the work I want that word to do. It has reminded me that I need to see the photography archive as also, inevitably, an imperial and colonial archive (this is hardly a stretch in my research on Ilford Limited — it’s indicative that one of the companies Ilford absorbs circa 1930 is the Imperial Dry Plate company).

Some concept of worlding might offer a way to consider how photographic promotional materials come together with technology and materials. In this context photography is understood not only as a means to make pictures, but as helping to shape a way of being in the world, of moving through it, and of being with and handling equipment. The world does not pre-exist photography, instead, making and looking at photographs is experienced as an ongoing process of the coming into being of a world. This worlding is both productive (of practices and sensory experiences) and erasing (it worlds an already existing world).

Far from being explicitly repressive, photographic worlding is about the production of new sensations, and these are not only optical or visual, but include the feelings attached to new ways of moving and being in relation to acts of photographing, being photographed, and viewing photographs. As the word “worlding” suggests, it takes constant work to world a world. What we find in the archive is not a past world, which in many ways is lost to us. Instead, among the labels and letters, the financial records, chemical formula and instruments (including cameras and darkroom equipment), instruction booklets and leaflets, books and articles providing technical and aesthetic guidance, we find the very means by which the work of worlding was conducted and overseen.


Heidegger, Martin, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York, 1977), 17-87.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, “The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives”, History and Theory, 24: 3. (1985a), 247-272.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism”, Critical Inquiry, 12: 1, (1985b), 243-261.

Vulcanite Goggles

4 February 2019 | On Archives, Writing and Being Distracted

It has been a long while since I last wrote for this blog. This is mainly because I have been trying to write up my findings for the first (possible) journal article to come out of this research. Though I have published lots of book chapters over the years as well as writing and editing books, I have only written a few journal articles. It took me a very long time to get over the first unsympathetic rejection letter that I received in my early twenties. Even now, without a definite commission, I struggle to know how to pitch a journal article. The weight of making a “contribution to the field”, of trying to add something worthwhile to theory or historiography, makes my writing so slow: I rewrite, and rewrite, I labour on it to the extent that it grows to the size of a short book and then shrinks back down again. Of course, the blog format has its own limitations, several of them set by myself — not to write more than about eight short paragraphs, for example — but it feels as though it allows more spontaneity, more tentative links and imaginative stitching-together of ideas.

In the last two months I have made several archive visits, to the Walgreen Boots Alliance Archive in Nottingham, the Ilford Limited archive at Redbridge and the Kodak Limited collection at the British Library in London. Both in the archives and in the journal article, it is hard to resist the attractions of the odd and the idiosyncratic. In my research, I am fascinated by one man, who as well as inventing new photographic processes, and experimenting with photo-telegraphy, patented radioactive bath salts and pioneered new uses of powerful electromagnetic fields in farming. I imagine abandoning academic work to write popular (or unpopular) biographies of eccentric inventors with double-barrelled names. In the Walgreen Boots Alliance archive, I find myself lingering over “Cleevis Sun Spectacles”, vulcanite goggles with narrow horizontal slots to peer out through, resembling the eyes of a goat.

These are reproduced in the Boots Merchandise Bulletin, which gives useful insight into the activities of the high street chemist’s photography department. During the 1920s and early 1930s the photography season only really lasted from May until September, so the Boots photography departments diversified, selling other electrical or optical goods such as bedside lamps, torches and flash lamps during the winter, and sunglasses during the summer. A note on sun goggles in June 1925 says, “Will everyone note that the frames of these goggles are inflammable when exposed to an open flame. Every assurance can be given to our customers that in normal use there is not the slightest danger”. I have visions of 1920s sunbathers casually lighting cigarettes and setting fire to their own glasses.

In this archive I also discover that photographic companies were promoting their films through vouchers in cigarette packets. In the late 1920s, Rajar, Ensign and Kodak all issued such vouchers in collaboration with tobacco companies such as BDV and Standard. And, both here and in the Kodak Limited collection, I discovered more discussion of fog (see my blog post on fog here). In the Boots in-house magazine in 1935, one writer describes a train journey delayed by fog, in order to emphasise the importance of “prompt and decisive action” among salespeople, which requires “no mental fog”. In the Kodak Limited collection there is a report compiled in 1930 on experiments aimed at discovering the “chemical nature of the London fog, with the object of devising some means of removing those constituents from foggy air which render coating of sensitised material impossible”. Kodak bottled the fog and attempted to analyse it, but found no way of purifying it, and failed to identify the “emulsion-fogging constituent”.

If the Boots archive is particularly rich in distractions, with its double page spreads of swimming hats and rubber underwear, the Kodak Limited collection, though supposedly the records of a disciplined scientific research laboratory, also has its oddities and gems. I found a “Dufay airphoto” of a mother and child (Valerie and Peg) from 1943 and a report on visit to an inventor of a new kind of safety film in 1930, in which “the inventor is convinced he has something of such value that the cinematographic world will have to adapt its methods to suit his film” — as the tone of the report suggests, Kodak’s representatives were not impressed. Elsewhere, testing the relative flammability of different brands of safety film, the Kodak researchers set fire to their own film, Agfa and Pathé film, the Daily Mail, the Berliner Tageblatt, fine-spun silk, nuns’ veils and Turkish towelling (among many other materials).

Some years ago, I ran some AHRC-funded workshops on archives, in collaboration with Julian Warren, who at that time was the archivist for Arnolfini, Bristol. Together with a group of archivists, artists, academics and audience members (everything in that project seemed to begin with “A”), we addressed questions of preserving the ephemeral and the performative, and the relationship of the archive to governance. We thought about the thin line between the archive and the rubbish dump, about the tensions of the archive between order and disorder, frozen time and decay, memory and forgetting. We discussed the overwhelming impossibility (and undesirability) of the total archive, and we talked about the fluidity and instability of archives. In the final plenary, one of the things we discussed was how “The increased mobility (of bodies, of documents) and increased intangibility (of art, of culture) seems to be matched with an ever more aggressive drive to capture and secure in the archive”.

I now find this aggressive drive in myself, armed with a digital camera and an overanxious approach to journal article writing. Anxious about the possibility that I might one day need to discuss such things, I photograph every page of the Kodak reports of fog and film-burning, as well as swimming hats, announcements about “foot comfort week”, and vulcanite sun goggles. I am creating my own parallel archive, which is, as much as anything, a record of my own distractibility.


Boots Merchandise Bulletin, Walgreen Boots Alliance Archive.

Harrow Research Report H196, E.E. Jelley, “London Fog — A Chemical Investigation”, 22 December 1931, Kodak A2827, Kodak Collection, British Library.

Harrow Research Report H118, “Preliminary (first draft) Report on Burning Rates of Film, Paper and Textile Fabrics”, 17 April 1930, Kodak A2827, Kodak Collection, British Library.

From Surface to Skin

10 December 2018 | Collodion, Celluloid and Artificial Nature

I have been trying to think about the sensitised surfaces of film, glass plates and paper in photographic processes. Surfaces can be understood as impermeable or permeable, as interfaces, membranes, barriers or boundaries, or as entities in themselves. Human skin, for example, is understood as a surface separating body from world, mediating between inside and outside, but also as itself a bodily organ. The photographic surface might be conceived as a kind of sensitive skin, insofar as it is flexible, laminate, semi-permeable, reactive to light, and to pollutants in the atmosphere, even though made up not of living cells but of crystals.

Photography has been long understood as lacking in facture — the textural disturbances to the surface found in painting. Yet Chitra Ramalingam draws attention to the way that conservators regard photographs as “much more than just an image”, as something stratified, made up of different layers with various functions, properties and different rates of response to light and speeds of disintegration or decay (Ramalingam 319). This suggests the medium is no mere support or carrier, and not inert, static or neutral.

Two closely related materials, collodion and celluloid, are central to the history of photographic surfaces. Both derive from gun cotton, originally made in the 1830s – ’40s from combining cotton (a source of cellulose) with sulphuric and nitric acids. A highly combustible and volatile explosive substance, it was quickly put to military use, although it was difficult to manufacture and store safely. Its manufacture coincided with the early development of photography, and in the form of collodion it was adopted for photographic purposes in 1851, in Frederick Scott Archer’s wet-plate collodion process.

Collodion is gun cotton (also known as nitrocellulose or pyroxylin) dissolved in a mixture of ether and alcohol to form a gluey, syrupy substance. It was used first on glass negatives, then on photographic papers, increasing light sensitivity. It was also deployed in medicine to heal wounds and as a cosmetic covering for skin disorders or scars. Sometimes described as “artificial skin”, it forms a smooth film that tightens as it dries, pulling wounds together.

Nitrocellulose products maimed soldiers, then patched them up, and documented the results: both the Crimean war and American Civil war were photographed with wet plate collodion, and photographs were used as aids to plastic surgery. Yet nineteenth-century doctors’ tales of collodion use described not wounded soldiers but young women whose mild disfigurements affected their social prospects (Scoffern 68-70; Wilson 553). In both photography and cosmetic medicine, collodion was recruited to shape ideals of gender and class. While, they speculated, dipping an entire body in the artificial skin would no doubt result in death (as in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger), the substance conjured the male fantasy of an entirely artificial woman. Yet its perfection undermined its realism, since, as one advocate pointed out, it lacked the soft down of natural skin (Scoffern, 70).

Based on his observations of the drying of photographic collodion, a Birmingham man named Alexander Parkes produced a new collodion-based substance called Parkesine (patented in 1862). In the US, a very similar substance named celluloid was produced by John Wesley Hyatt from around 1869. A legal dispute led to the material being called Xylonite in Britain, and celluloid in the United States. George Eastman adopted celluloid for his Kodak film in the late 1880s, while Ilford’s flat films were sliced from celluloid blocks supplied from America, in a process developed by John Carbutt in Chicago. Much later, Ilford collaborated with British Xylonite in a joint company for making their film base.

Hyatt was not a trained chemist but a printer who had seen an offer of $10,000 to anyone who could find a substitute for ivory for billiard balls. Certainly a substitute was overdue, as around 44,000 African elephants alone were being slaughtered every year to sate the Western lust for ivory (Walker 134). When Hyatt’s celluloid-coated billiard balls collided, they made a characteristic gunshot sound. As celluloid was adopted for cinematography and photography, it was used to document the murderous trade in ivory and the big game hunt.

It was, therefore, an ivory substitute that built George Eastman’s Kodak empire, but it failed to destroy the desire to kill elephants. In 1928, the same year that Kodacolor movie film was launched, Eastman went on an African safari. On February 19th 1928, he telegrammed home that he “GOT ELEPHANT TODAY EVERYTHING LOVELY”. The elephant had particular meaning for Eastman since it was also the symbol of the Republican party to which Eastman contributed $25,000  that year. In a move that adds resonance to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous analogy between photography and the hunting and skinning of exotic animals, Eastman had the dead elephant taxidermied (Holmes 1859).

His correspondence over the next four months is filled with discussion about the preparation and mounting of the elephant’s head, which was approximately 9 foot from ear to ear. Eastman's extravagant conservatory / music room was “ideal for such a large trophy”, gushed the taxidermist Jonas. Artificial nature in the form of celluloid did not end elephant hunting but preserved it as a leisure practice of wealthy monopoly capitalists (see Haraway on the heady mix of imperialism, realist photography, taxidermy, and eugenics in Eastman's social circle).

Celluloid film can be understood as a “film” in the most literal sense, and also as a kind of artificial skin. Unfortunately, gun cotton’s reactive, explosive quality lingered in celluloid film, which was notoriously unstable and flammable. Nevertheless, by the 1920s, the United States was producing 40,000 tons of celluloid a year (Kaufman, 45). In its wide variety of forms, this was one of the first plastics to go beyond the imitation of organic materials, shaping what Janet Ward describes as the “surface culture” of 1920s urban modernity (Ward).


Chandler, Charles F. “Presentation Address.” Industrial & Engineering Chemistry 6, no. 2 (1914): 156–158

Eastman correspondence 1928, George Eastman House Study Center.

Haraway, Donna. “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936”, Social Text, no. 11 (Winter, 1984-1985): 20–64.

Holmes, Oliver Wendall. “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph.” Atlantic Monthly, June 1859.

Kaufman, Morris. The First Century of Plastics: Celluloid and its Sequel. London: Plastics Institute, 1963.

Parkes, Alex. “On the Properties of Parkesine and its Application to the Arts and Manufactures.” Journal of the Society of the Arts XIV, no. 683 (1865): 81–6.

Ramalingam, Chitra. “Dust Plate, Retina, Photograph: Imaging on Experimental Surfaces in Early Nineteenth-Century Physics.” Science in Context 28, no. 3 (2015): 317–55.

Scoffern, John, Stray Leaves of Science and Folklore, London: Tinsley Brothers, 1870.

Walker, John Frederick. Ivory's Ghosts: the White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants. Grove Press 2010.

Ward, Janet. Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001.

Wilson, Erasmus. “Observations on Collodion in the Treatment of Diseases of the Skin.” The Lancet 52, no. 1316 (1848): 553–554.

For the process of producing collodion for photography see:

Woodbury, W. E. The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Photography. New York: Scovill & Adams Co., 1898 Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1979.

Aesthetics, Industry and Innovation in Twentieth Century Photography: The Ilford Archive

14 August 2018 | New AHRC funded research project starting September 2018

I have just received the exciting news that I have been made an AHRC Leadership Fellow. This will fund a research project on the work of the Ilford Limited photographic company and aspects of photographic culture during WWI and in the interwar period in Britain. It will also enable me to develop my research leadership skills and capacity, by providing masterclasses and workshops for colleagues and postgraduate students in my field, as well as funding an international conference in photography and film studies in 2019.

I am really looking forward to the first part, in which I will work in the Ilford archive, and the second part, where I disseminate the results of my research, collaborate with other institutions and with my wonderful colleague Dr. Junko Theresa Mikuriya, in planning and designing the conference. The AHRC money pays for Theresa's time to organise the conference, as well as for technicians and administrators to run and document it. The conference will try to engage not just with academics, but also with photographic practitioners, archivists and industry participants.

Overall the intention is not only to produce a new body of knowledge about Ilford and this specific historical period, but to develop new methods and theoretical perspectives and to create dialogue, particularly around the relationship between the material-industrial infrastructure of photography and film manufacture, and the intangible and aesthetic aspects of photography and film.

My research explores new aesthetic and technical practices developed in the period between the two world wars, and the impact on the visual, sensual 'economy' of the period. It situates Ilford's work with photographic chemistry in relation to other developments in the period relating to colour photography and photosensitivity, and in relation to changes in photographic practice and style. It looks at how technical and aesthetic developments were designed to address specific problems or needs arising from war and from economic changes.

As part of my literature review, I will be looking at existing studies of photographic companies such as Kodak, Corbis and Polaroid. I also plan to draw on work on the history of the senses. In particular, I am hoping to contribute to new and developing approaches in photography history and photography theory that move away from older analyses of a break between analogue and digital image to a more nuanced understanding of the material, industrial and technological basis of twentieth-century photographic practices. I am hoping to be able to make specific connections between corporate, everyday and avant-garde aesthetic and technical experimentation in photography, and to develop an understanding of how aesthetic and technical expertise embodied by human participants is transferred into technical apparatuses, and re-emerges as human-technical practices.

So this is part of a larger interest in how technical images impact on everyday sensory experience, and in the long technical development of photography. I'd like to be able to account for photography as a technology, without losing sight of questions of aesthetics and interpretation, which tend to be sidelined in historical and social-science accounts of technical change.

The project begins on 1st September 2018 and runs through to Autumn / Winter 2019. I will be providing regular updates on this blog and via the project Twitter and Instagram accounts. If you are interested in following the project, participating in the conference in 2019, or engaging in discussion over issues raised by this research, you can contact me via my university email account or via the social media accounts — details of which will be posted soon!