What is photography?

Album with Pressed Flowers

Photography has never been just one thing. This exhibition invites users to explore the vast body of changing technologies, materials, and practices that photography encompasses, from pre-photographic materials that point towards the idea of photography to the daguerreotypes of the nineteenth century, and onwards to the digital practices of the late-twentieth century. 

Conventional histories of photography offer a teleological narrative that revolves around developments in Europe in order to posit photography as a progressive series of technological improvements over time. While many early camera and printing technologies originated in Europe, photographic practices took shape in countless iterations across the globe and served myriad cultural, political, and aesthetic functions. In addition, photographic processes are often used long after new technologies are introduced, so that the actual materials that count as “photography” vary within a single historical moment. 

An impulse to record a thing or an event unites the various photographies gathered here. A photograph’s ability to record a physical trace of something "that-has-been" (Barthes 77) is called its “indexical quality,” and this is often considered photography’s distinguishing characteristic. Just as a footprint is the index of the foot that stepped, a photograph is an index of the image’s subject. In this formulation, the photograph acts as an index to the thing that-has-been much like a book’s index provides a shortcut to accessing content that exists elsewhere in the book.