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Camera Cultures: Technosocial Theaters of the Photographic Event

  • Author(s): Kershaw, Alexander Heathcote
  • Advisor(s): Stern, Lesley
  • et al.

This dissertation looks at what we can learn about photography by directing our attention to the moments in which it is made, that we cannot possibly ever know from studying the images produced in these same moments. What kinds of knowledge are produced in Situ, that are distinct from the knowledge produced by looking at images? In what ways do the presence of cameras make intersubjective experience and processes of recognition specific? What is the camera when it is not conceived primarily as a representational apparatus? To answer these questions, this project departs from standard approaches in photographic theory that typically conceptualize photography via the viewer’s experience of images. Instead, I use an “on-the-ground” approach to witness the processes via which images are made in “photographic events” across three sites in California. These case studies include Scripps Pier in San Diego and the Jaffe Laboratory for Underwater Imaging at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the work of several police crime scene photography units in Southern California and Yosemite National Park. Through an analysis of these sites where vernacular, scientific, artistic and commercial applications of photography converge, the purpose is to build a new vocabulary for the medium, reconstituted as a performative matrix of practices that are socially situated.

The images produced at these sites no longer take center-stage, but emerge as side effects of inter-subjective processes. Conceptualized as a theatrical mise-en-scène, these iterations of the “photographic event” situate photography as a less optical and more bodily technology. Furthermore, this notion of the event complicates the way the study of images typically distribute authorship to the photographer’s intention and instead I argue that we should see agency as vastly more distributed between human and non-human agents. At the same time, the camera is cast as a material thing that alters processes of social interaction and interpersonal recognition. Finally, the now hackneyed metaphor that draws an analogous relationship between photography and the gun is revised, so that photography’s connection with hunting is situated not via the ‘the kill,’ but though practices of trapping, decoy and poaching. In these ways, photography is dislodged from theories of agency versus automatism, the trace or the ‘reality’ effect and the gaze—and re-situated as a mode of non-representational thinking in the context of discourses including tourism studies, ethnography and material culture studies. Methodologically, in its attention to illuminating practice, ethnographic research exposes photography to a form of consideration that has not happened within the discipline of art theory.

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