Fotograf Magazine

The Photograph in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility and Its Outreaches

The book The “Public” Life Of Photographs is the first volume in a series based on the collaboration between MIT and the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) in Toronto. Although it is not mentioned in the book, its contents are based on the eponymous conference, which took place in 2013, specifically at RIC.

Thematically, the book focuses on the mobility of photographic images and their influence in public spaces; however, just the fact that the word “public” is enclosed in quotes in the title implies that this cumulative framework of texts will be very open in relation to what is “public”. Similarly broad is the spectrum of case studies (broken down into three categories of photographs – in mass culture, in visual communication, and in art), encompassing subjects including the use of photography in 19th century mass culture, issues associated with the symbolic interpretation of photojournalism, the role of photography in the judicial process, and specific public dissemination methods, including the use of photography itself as a tool (the production of reproducible exhibitions), as well as topics like the inclusion of color photography in a photo art discourse, the use of photography in exploring the boundaries between public and private in conceptual art, and the acceptance of vernacular photographs in art museum collections. To that extent, we can identify the reproducibility of photographs, their mass distribution, and the role photographs play in the various areas in which they are used.

The first two texts focus interest primarily on the reproducibility of photographs within the context of 19th century developments in photography, and they are the key to understanding the whole book. The first of these, “Making Public Photographs”, by Joel Snyder, reflects on the genealogy of the concept of reproduction in discussions about photography and subsequently challenges Walter Benjamin’s use of the term. He first draws attention to Benjamin’s use of this term in too broad of a sense, consequently disregarding the productive aspects of photographs. This analysis is set against a background covering the options for the mass reproducibility of the photo, which, as is often mistakenly believed, was not entirely possible during the first decades of its existence. Snyder introduces us here to issues associated with the history of printing techniques for the mass-scale reproduction of photographs. It seamlessly links to the second text, written by Geoffrey Batchen, which focuses exclusively on the transformation of the photographic image into other media, particularly engraved prints. Only in this transformed form is it possible to talk about the massive global distribution of early photographs, and Batchen draws attention to how the photographic image became separate from the photo itself. Despite the fact that this separation is generally associated with digitalization, this phenomenon may be seen even in the early days of photography, and Batchen shows how current developments in photography are linked to its history. In connection with the advancement of these mass reproduction techniques, he points out their characteristic bond with the development of consumer capitalism and, in a specific case, the role it played in the British Empire’s propaganda. Batchen places emphasis not only on the history of photography – based on its anchoring in the political, social, and economic context – but also argues in favor of including hybrid photographic images and the history of their production in the history of photography.

In addition to introducing some specific episodes covering the impact of photographs, or, in the words of Romana Javitz, who was the long-time Superintendent of the Picture Collection at the New York Public Library, the “task they perform”, the most beneficial contribution of the entire publication lies specifically in its focus on the history of photography as a contextual issue outside the hermetic space of media specificity and in relation to the mobility of images across various media, and the associated discourse.


Jan Kolský



Gervais, Thierry (ed.). The “Public” Life of Photographs. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2016. Print.