How do photographs circulate knowledge?

Life Magazine

From the first public pronouncement of its discovery in 1839, photography has been understood as a useful tool for circulating knowledge. However, the ways that various photographies participated in the production and dispersal of knowledge have been wide-ranging. Many of the first photographs were precious objects that could not be reproduced with ease, while digital images vary considerably from those early mechanically-reproduced images of analogue photography. Furthermore, ideas about the evidentiary potential of photographs have shifted alongside changing photographic practices. 

One thing that remains consistent is how photographs seem to extend our vision, bringing people, places, and things into view. Photographs of distant or unfamiliar subjects can be collected, compared, and studied, much like scientific specimens. This section of the exhibition includes a number of items, such as Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals and Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion, that do exactly that by bringing photographs of various specimens together into a single volume.

Other items included in this section do not serve the purposes of scientific inquiry, and yet the photographs may still have a similar effect by offering up snippets of their subjects as specimens on the page. For this reason, some theorists have been critical of the ways that photographs have been used to circulate knowledge, particularly when it comes to documentary photographs, such as those published in the magazine Life. Others take a different view by considering the ways that photography can be used as a tool for social change

Today, many collections, including Bruce Peel Special Collections, are digitizing at least a small sampling of their historical photographs and making them available and searchable. These efforts, including the work of this exhibition, help to circulate knowledge about the past while also contributing to the production of knowledge in the present.