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The photo archive as laboratory. Art history, photography, and materiality

  • Costanza Caraffa (a1)


Librarians, archivists, and curators today meet unique challenges when facing huge numbers of photographs accumulated in their institutions. Coming to terms with these masses in a responsible way means to reflect on cataloguing and digitization standards able to record their (material) complexity. It also means to constantly justify a series of investments: in cataloguing and digitization projects, but also in storage space, restoration, archival and conservation materials, not to speak of human resources. It means, ultimately, to reflect on the systems of value that one decides to apply while dealing with these holdings: the dematerialization rhetoric that often goes hand-in-hand with digitization campaigns tends to increase their fragility, on the other side we are confronted more and more often with the ‘contemporary repackaging of erstwhile ephemeral and disposable photographic prints' that acquire a new ‘archival value’.1 In this short essay I will focus on these systems of value. My aim is to offer some methodological tools to deal with documentary photographs in art historical institutions. These instruments derive from the intersection of photographic and archival theories and practices that shaped my experience as Head of the Photothek at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max Planck Institute, for more than a decade.



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1. Nina Lager Vestberg, Archival Value. On Photography, Materiality and Indexicality, in: Photographies 1(1), 2008, 49–65.

2. Edwards, Elizabeth, “Thoughts on the ‘Non-Collections’ of the Archival Ecosystem,” in Photo-Objects. On the Materiality of Photographs and Photo Archives in the Humanities and Sciences, ed. Bärnighausen, Julia, Caraffa, Costanza, Klamm, Stefanie, Schneider, Franka and Wodtke, Petra (Berlin: EOA, 2019), 6984. See also: Edwards, Elizabeth and Morton, Christopher A., eds., Photograph, Museums, Collections. Between Art and Information (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

3. Edwards, Elizabeth and Lien, Sigrid, eds., Uncertain Images: Museums and the Work of Photographs (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).

4. Among the most important publications are Hamber, Anthony J., A Higher Branch of the Art. Photographing the Fine Arts in England 1839–1880 (Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1996); Johnson, Geraldine A., Sculpture and Photography: Envisioning the Third Dimension (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998); Caraffa, Costanza, ed., Photo Archives and the Photographic Memory of Art History (Berlin – Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2011); Peters, Dorothea, “Auf Spurensuche. Giovanni Morelli und die Fotografie,” in Zeigen und/oder beweisen? Die Fotografie als Kulturtechnik und Medium des Wissens, ed. Wolf, Herta (Berlin – Boston: De Gruyter, 2016), 1543; Hamill, Sarah and Luke, Megan R., eds., Photography and Sculpture: The Art Object in Reproduction (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute, 2017).

5. Schwartz, Joan M., “We Make Our Tools and Our Tools Make Us: Lessons from Photographs for the Practice, Politics and Poetics of Diplomatics,” Archivaria 40 (Fall 1995): 4074, here 45.

6. Here the seminal writings are Schwartz, “We Make Our Tools”; Pinney, Christopher, Camera Indica. The Social Life of Indian Photographs (London: Reaktion Books, 1997); Edwards, Elizabeth, Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums (Oxford: Berg, 2001); Edwards, Elizabeth and Hart, Janice, eds., Photographs Objects Histories: on the Materiality of Images, (London: Routledge 2004). For an overview, see Costanza Caraffa, “Photographic Itineraries in Time and Space. Photographs as Material Objects,” in Handbook of Photography Studies, ed. Gil Pasternak (London: Bloomsbury Academic, forthcoming).

7. Caraffa, Costanza, “From ‘Photo Libraries‘ to ‘Photo Archives’: on the Epistemological Potential of Art-historical Photo Collections,” in Photo Archives and the Photographic Memory of Art History, ed. Caraffa, Costanza (Berlin – Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2011), 1144.

8. Schwartz, Joan M., “‘Records of Simple Truth and Precision:’ Photography, Archives, and the Illusion of Control,” Archivaria 50 (Fall 2000): 140; Cook, Terry and Schwartz, Joan M., eds., “Archives, Records, and Power,” double monographic issue of Archival Science: International Journal on Recorded Information 2, no. 1–2 and 3–4 (2002).

9. Hubert, Hans W., Das Kunsthistorische Institut in Florenz: von der Gründung bis zum hundertjährigen Jubiläum (1897–1997) (Florence: Il Ventilabro, 1997).

10. For the history of the Photothek see Dercks, Ute, “Wenn das Sammeln zur ‘fixen Idee‘ wird: Die frühen Fotokampagnen des Kunsthistorischen Instituts in Florenz,” Rundbrief Fotografie 22, no. 2 (2015): 718.

11. Here I just mention the series of international conferences “Photo Archives” as well as the “Florence Declaration – Recommendations for the Preservation of Analogue Photo Archives” (more on, accessed November 1, 2018).

12. Gaier, Martin, “’Die heilige Ursula hängt mir schon ellenlang zum Hals heraus’: Gustav Ludwig tra storia artistica e culturale 1895–1905,” in Presenze tedesche a Venezia, ed. Winter, Susanne (Rome: Ed. di Storia e Letteratura, 2005), 131175.

13. Ludwig, Gustav, “Bonifazio di Pitati da Verona: eine archivalische Untersuchung,” Jahrbuch der Preußischen Kunstsammlungen 1–2 (1901): 6178, 180–199; 3 (1902): 36–66.

14. Marconi, Sandra Moschini, Gallerie dell'Accademia di Venezia. Opere d'arte del secolo XVI (Rome: Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, 1962), 3766; Cottrell, Philip, “Corporate Colors: Bonifacio and Tintoretto at the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi in Venice,” The Art Bulletin 82 (2000): 658678.

15. Caraffa, Costanza and Goldhahn, Almut, “Fotografien als Forschungsobjekte. Der Nachlass Gustav Ludwigs in der Photothek des Kunsthistorischen Instituts in Florenz,” in Fotografie und Film im Archiv: Sammeln, Bewahren, Erforschen, ed. Ziehe, Irene and Hägele, Ulrich (Münster – New York – Munich – Berlin: Waxmann, 2013), 7384, here 79.

16. Ludwig had attended courses of photography at the Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt für Photographie und Reproduktionsverfahren in Vienna. Gaier, “Die heilige Ursula,” 140.

17. Verein zur Erhaltung des Kunsthistorischen Instituts in Florenz e.V., Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz. Jahresbericht, 1905–1906, 4. The concept of the social biography of objects is derived from Appadurai, Arjun, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986).

18. Dercks, Ute, “’And Because the Use of the Photographic Device is Impossible Without a Proper Card Catalog.…’: the Typological-stylistic Arrangement and the Subject Cross-reference Index of the KHI’s Photothek (1897–1930s),” Visual resources (2014): 181200, here 190.

19. In preparation of the online exhibition “Gustav Ludwig. The Photographic Bequest,” (, accessed October 25, 2018).

20. Cook, Terry, “From Information to Knowledge: An Intellectual Paradigm for Archives,” Archivaria, vol. 19 (Winter 1984–85): 2849.

21. Schwartz, Joan M., “Coming to Terms with Photographs: Descriptive Standards, Linguistic ‘Othering’, and the Margins of Archivy,” Archivaria 54 (2002): 142171.

22. Schwartz, “We Make Our Tools,” 62.

23. Favero, Paolo S. H., The Present Image. Visible Stories in a Digital Habitat (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

24. Gabrys, Jennifer, Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011); Maxwell, Richard, Raundalen, Jon and Vestberg, Nina Lager, eds., Media and the Ecological Crisis (London: Routledge, 2015).

25. Were, Graeme and Favero, Paolo S. H., eds., Imaging Digital Lives: Participation, Politics and Identity in Indigenous, Diaspora, and Marginal Communities, special issue of Journal of Material Culture, 18 (2013), no. 3; Miller, Daniel, “Photography in the Age of Snapchat,” Anthropology & Photography, vol. 1 (2015), London: Royal Anthropological Institute, Online Open-Access; Walton, Shireen, “Photographic Truth in Motion: The Case of Iranian Photoblogs,” Anthropology & Photography, vol. 4 (2016), London: Royal Anthropological Institute, Online Open-Access.

26. Edwards and Lien, Uncertain Images, 4–5; Caraffa, Costanza, “Manzoni in the Phototek, Photographic Archives as Ecosystems,” in Instant presence. Representing Art in Photography: in Honor of Josef Sudek (1896–1976), ed. Buddeus, Hana, Mašterová, Katarína and Lahoda, Vojtěch (Prague: Artefactum, Institute of Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences, 2017), 121136; Edwards, “Thoughts on the ‘Non-Collections’”.

27. Alpers, Svetlana, “The Museum as a Way of Seeing,” in Exhibiting Cultures, ed. Karp, Ivan and Lavine, Steven D. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 2532, here 26.

28. Edwards, Raw histories, 5 with reference to Hoskins, Janet, Biographical Objects: How Things Tell the Stories of People's Lives (New York: Routledge, 1998) for the relation between “little narratives” and “big narratives”.

29. Kratz, Corinne A., “Rhetorics of Value: Constituting Worth and Meaning through Cultural Display,” Visual Anthropology Review 27, no. 1 (Spring 2011), 2148.


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