Volume 10, Number 2, Winter 2013
Editors’ Introduction: Photography and Preservation
Iñaki Bergera, Jorge Otero-Pailos
As records—deposits—of the past, buildings and photographs are concrete instances of social memory in action: they are, from corner to corner and from subcellar to roof peak, impure fragments of the churn of time.
— Joel Smith, The Life and Death of Buildings: On Photography and Time
This is the first of two special issues exploring new ways to understand the relationship between photography and preservation. Modern preservation is to some degree unthinkable without photographs, and indeed the two fields trace their origins to the same historical moment at the dawn of the nineteenth century. By the 1840s, John Ruskin was urging preservationists to seize “every opportunity afforded by scaffolding to approach [art and architecture] closely, and putting the camera in any position that will command” it. Toward the end of the nineteenth century Camillo Boito established the now standard practice of systematically photographing all phases of a restoration and archiving the pictures for future reference and to insure the reversibility of treatments. Today, the specific field of architectural photography is well established, but most scholarship has focused on its relationship to new construction, while photography’s career and influence within preservation has only recently begun to garner attention. This first issue examines paradigmatic uses of photography within preservation, including documenting, surveying, and archiving. The second issue will address the subject from a more theoretical perspective, unpacking some key themes and concepts that define the relationship between photography and preservation, such as time, memory and cultural identity. These two special issues on photography and preservation explore this recent research area, which enriches the discipline by theorizing photography’s ramifications within the history of preservation.
The question of how photography helped constitute the historic city as an object of preservation undergirds the analytical frameworks of a cluster of authors in this first issue. Sabrina Hughes focuses on the way photographers such as Édouard Baldus and Henri Le Secq first, and Eugène Atget later on, helped to aesthetically portray the transforming streets of Paris, balancing its documentation needs with the depiction [End Page iii] of its inevitable destruction. C. Ian Stevenson studies the construction of the Boston subway in the nineteenth century as a paradigmatic test case of the encyclopedic thrust of documentary photography—up to 200,000 negatives were shot for this single survey. Photography was both a means to an end and an end in itself, a tool for recording the significant urban elements to be preserved and a quasi-mechanical bureaucratic production of archival documentation.
Miriam Paeslack examines the impressive transformation and expansion of Berlin at the end of the nineteenth century through the lens of rubble photography, a term that described the documentation of the massive demolition campaigns that cleared the way for new development. Rubble photography documented Berlin’s crumbling architecture, transforming the romantic notion of the ruin into a visual allegory of the cost of modernization and an archive of irrecoverable loss.
The massive photographic archives of preservation projects produced since the nineteenth century were meant to serve as references and benchmarks to elevate the work of future preservationists, but as Franca Malservisi and Maria Rosaria Vitale show, they are often ignored. Their critical analysis of the restoration the Gros-Horloge of Rouen, France, in the late nineteenth century, reveals the uses and misuses of its photographic documentation. Preservationists demoted the photographic archive to secondary evidence, despite, or perhaps because of, its immensity and chose instead to uphold the physical building as the primary original document—even if the photos clearly showed it to be the derivative product of an earlier restoration. Malservisi and Vitale reveal the prejudices that preservationists sometimes bring to the treatment of photographs, including the fixation with the building’s preeminence.
More troubling still is the sense that a history of preservation that accounts for its failures as well as its triumphs has yet to be fully written. Alongside preservation’s canonical hagiography we need to also include, as Sarah Rogers Morris convincingly argues, the tragic heroes behind failed experiments, such as Richard Nickel, who met an untimely death inside an active demolition site as he attempted to pioneer a new form of activist preservation photography. Nickel could neither save…