As a past student of art history, I’ve spent countless hours staring at projectors, looking at textbooks, and my own computer screen to complete research. I cannot fathom completing this research without the aids of photographic reproductions. During undergrad, the students in the art history track were encouraged to reference the actual artwork when possible. The reasoning is obvious, but the professors always commented that photographs are lackluster representations of what we were studying; that a photo distorts color, scale, surface textures, lighting, etc. Looking back, I find the perspectives of the professors to be ironic (Mansfield 252). We were told to not solely rely on photographic representations of an object, but that is the only format that was available.
Photography is the rise and limitation of the art history field. Without this mediation, the world wouldn’t know the connections between certain works of art or the differences in technique for artworks completed during the same periods, but in different locations (Mansfield 249). Personally, I wouldn’t have been able to complete my research effectively last semester if I had to keep returning to the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn to look at the artworks I was analyzing. However, photos provide a dissociative context of the object or artifact. With this mediation, care has to be taken to ensure that an object is never “reduced to reproductions” (Irvine 3).
I have found that many museums are thoughtful to prevent object reproductions from losing their context. The Smithsonian Museums, for example, are undergoing a mass digitization process at the moment. Currently, the smallest museums have their entire collections online and available for visitor use, complete with metadata, tags, and tombstone information. Digitization of objects has allowed our cultures to be presented in frameworks we couldn’t have imagined before. New interfaces and connections are able to be discovered, all because of photography.
“While previously mistress (as in the earlier personal and often unacknowledged use of photographs for research), photography became proper wife and mother of a discipline” (Mansfield 249).”
Mansfield, Elizabeth. Art History and Its Institutions: The Nineteenth Century. 1st ed., Routledge, 2005. Crossref, doi:10.4324/9780203995099.
Irvine, Martin. Malraux and the Musée Imaginaire: Interfaces for Art History: Photographic Reproductions and Mediating Institutions.