Balancing the Archive: Personal Photos, Complicating Narratives

I’ve had an abiding scholarly interest in Holocaust history and the complication of the “mainstream” Holocaust narrative — so upon finding that one of the readings for last week’s Photography & Public History class had to do with photography during the Holocaust, I was delighted in the kind of way that I wanted to keep to myself. (Getting excited about Holocaust history can sometimes garner weird looks from people.) In any case, it — and the other readings, to do with the exhibition and archiving of personal and personalized photographic records — spoke to me on the level of scholarship I’m most interested in: that of complicating typical narratives and complicating the relationship between history and historian.

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Panoramas: Then and Now

I’ve been thinking a lot about panoramas lately for my Photography and Public History class, and it’s branched out from appreciating them as an exhibit to trying to figure out what it means that we’re still using panoramas to capture as much as possible. In “Traveling in Pictures”, Rebecca Solnit juxtaposes Eadweard Muybridge’s panoramas of San Francisco with the ongoing social and political unrest in the city at the time. She explains Muybridge’s process, noting that the picture was taken from atop what is now called Nob Hill (then known as California Hill), which was home to the city’s wealthy (159). But what really got me thinking about more modern panoramas was the fact that despite the conflict happening in San Francisco — during the national Great Strike of 1877 — Muybridge’s photos do not seem to explicitly reflect that. If there were any people that were still long enough to be captured, the photo is taken from too far away to see them in any kind of detail. This makes sense for Muybridge’s panoramas — his camera would have taken too long to capture anyone moving. The panoramas showcase the city’s bare bones: its buildings and streets — but they fail to capture the tension and social/economic/political life (and strife) of the city, and in that sense I’m not sure that I agree with Solnit that seizing a piece of history and making it widely available is (in this case) radical (169-70). Muybridge’s panoramas seem not to capture the moment in history as it’s being experienced by San Francisco — they capture a sanitized version of the city, making it widely available (and in this sense, it gives everyone the view that would otherwise by privy only to the wealthy — which perhaps is radical) to those who would have been directly influenced by if not involved in the conflict.

Vatican City Panorama (Marcus Obal, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:MarcusObal)

This panorama of St Peter’s Square in Vatican City doesn’t show much conflict either, but it’s notably different from Muybridge’s panoramas of San Francisco — not only does it have people in it, it’s taken from the point of view of a visitor to the Square. This doesn’t provide a sort of elite or exclusive view — at least, not insofar as it isn’t taken from, for example, the Pope’s viewpoint (admittedly it is taken from the point of view of someone with access to the Square). A lot of the panoramas I’ve seen that are more modern than Muybridge’s seem to fall into three categories: street views, such as the Vatican City panorama above, bird’s-eye views, and nature panoramas.

My father has a panorama photograph not unlike the one above, that he took, hanging on the wall of our dining room that is of a landwash near where he grew up, and I’ve been thinking about it, and wondering about why we use panoramas still — the landwash isn’t a major city, nor is it inaccessible to him (or me). The drive to capture information has, as Solnit points out, petered out since Muybridge’s time — after all, we have the Internet, and relatively speaking it’s much easier for us to travel the world than it would have been for Muybridge. So why do we still take so many panoramic photographs? And why of things that are — unlike the view of San Francisco from atop Nob Hill, for the working class of San Francisco — not entirely unaccessible?  I think that despite our instant access to information and increasingly easy travel, there’s still a longing to be able to see it all, all at once; we can go to St Peter’s Square and take it all in, but not in the way that the panorama above shows it (at least, not without turning — I’ve tried). When it comes to nature panoramas and street view panoramas, at least, I think this is the desire for the viewers — we want to see everything at the same time, to have the illusion (which Solnit points out can easily be shattered by the photographer (176)) of simultaneity.

With bird’s-eye view panoramas I think the desire is similar, but differently expressed: we want to see everything, but from an angle nobody could naturally see it from. We, as viewers, want to see the entirety of Manhattan (or San Francisco, as it were) from above or from afar — because that’s the only way to see it in its entirety. But I think that bird’s-eye view panoramas also have an emptiness to them, that maybe modern street view panoramas and nature panoramas avoid: after all, can we really see the entirety of a place (particularly a city, such as San Francisco or Manhattan) if we are not seeing its guts, the people living within it? I’m not sure of the answer — and I think it’s all dependent upon how people are using panoramas. Is it nostalgia? Tourism? An attempt to capture a moment in history? We no longer live in Muybridge’s time — but it seems to me that the drive to take and consume panoramic photographs hasn’t died down.

CITED:
Solnit, Rebecca. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Penguin Books, 2004), 155-76.

new beginnings: grad school so far

I’ve always been someone to seek out new experiences; I love traveling and trying new foods. Paradoxically, I’m also someone who hates change. It’s a thing, I think, that’s based on the fact that I’ve spent my whole life switching houses (#sharedcustodyproblems). Obviously I’m not blaming my parents or our life situations for how weird I am about change — but nonetheless, I’m weird about change.

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