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Archive Style: Photographs and Illustrations for U.S. Surveys, 1850-1890

by Robin Kelsey
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2007
286 pp., illus. 89 b/w. Trade, $49.95; 29.95
ISBN: 0-520-24935-6.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

University of Leuven


Many books and authors have challenged the privilege of art historical research in the field of photography studies. Many of them, however, have been doing so by posing between brackets the specific artistic dimensions of the photographs and photographers studies, replacing it by technical or sociological concerns and perspectives. Robin Kelsey’s book is a magnificent exception to this tendency, for it does not split but intertwines a large set of views on historical photography without diminishing the artistic accomplishments of the corpus. Kelsey’s achievement is all the more admirable since the author is working on a long-time occupied ground: the US survey photography of the second half of the 19th century (the terminus a quo, 1850, refers of course to the first uses of photography in this type of exploration; the terminus ad quem is motivated by the beginning of the easy to handle cameras, which drove professional photographers out of business).

In our dominant perceptions of this type of images, there is an almost absolute gap between what Kelsey calls the extremes of "archive" and "style". Archive: the impersonal constitution of repetitive and strictly controlled collections of images, where no place whatsoever is left to the personal touch of the photographer, who is less an artist than an employee. Style: the attempt of some exceptional individuals —O’Sullivan and Watkins, for instance— to give form and expression to a personal, highly individual and subjective work that exceeds in all regards the archival straightjacket. Kelsey makes a totally different claim. Rather than stressing the unproductive antagonism of style and archive, he takes as his starting point the creative and artistic possibilities of the survey work and its often mechanic and bureaucratic conditions— to generate innovative and original practices as a result of the creative clash between on the one hand the rules of the archive —i.e., in the sense coined by Foucault, as the rules what can be said and what cannot— and on the other hand the individual profile and desires of the visual artist —who resists the archive as much as he undergoes it.

This approach, which at the same time reduces and underlines the importance of the individual subject, is transformed by Kelsey in an over-all reading method that is both very simple (thanks to the sharpness of its basic concepts) and extremely sophisticated (thanks to the wealth of the historical information that is provided and the cleverness of its interpretation). Although Archive Style makes only spare use of heavy metadiscursive or metatheoretical artillery, the work of scholars such as Allan Sekula or Jacques Derrida, for instance, is exemplarily used to foreground a type of reading that manages in changing many stereotypical views of 19th century US survey photography. Moreover, Kelsey has a strong commitment to lesser known, if not totally overlooked authors, which makes his intellectual enterprise even more exciting (two of his three case studies concern "minor" artists, the draughtsman Arthur Scott and the "virtual nobody" called C.C. Jones).

The three graphic artists studied by Kelsey correspond to the three major periods in illustrative techniques of 19th Century US survey programs in the second half of the 19th Century. Schott represents the mode of engravings (not after photographs, but after sketches and drawings) just before the systematic use of photography. O’Sullivan has become the canonical example of photographically illustrated albums of the West. Jones’s works can be seen as representative for the decade that made professional photographers almost useless for field work and that forced them to shift towards dull indoor reproduction jobs). The choice of these three artists enables Kelsey also to cover the major geographic areas of the survey program and to examine the dramatic evolutions within this type of work. Scott, who worked to document the newly fixed border with Mexico, was confronted with the difficulty of having to adapt the old models of the topographic view to the new demands of the US administration, which considered promotion and legitimation crucial dimensions of the new style that had to be invented more or less on the spot. O’Sullivan, who accompanied half-military, half-capitalistic expeditions to the West, had to reconcile a wide range of expectations, while simultaneously having to combine various functions within the expeditionary team in which he did not only serve as a photographer-veteran of the Civil War. Jones, who made one brief but very important trip to the South, produced a visual archive of the Charleston earthquake, and his images present a strange mix of scientific and social, political, as well as ideological components.

Most importantly, Kelsey studies in very close detail the audience and circulation of the archives produced by Scott, O’Sullivan, and Jones. Their images were used for local (Washington DC) and national circulation, in the former case for lobbying activities, in the latter case for goodwill and promotional activities, and both types of use and reuse were hotly debated topics. Many representatives and tax-payers resisted the cost of the (often aesthetical but scientifically debatable) images that accompanied the reports published by the national printer, for instance. Yet it was precisely the harshness of this situation —with many conflicting demands of the commissioners, the difficult reconciliation of old and new techniques and models, the social distance at which the artists were kept by most of the leading officials, the economic insecurity of short-term contracts in an exile country— that made each of these three artists invent totally new ways of picturing the national territory. Kelsey does not analyze these innovations from a merely formal, proto- or pre-formalist perspective, but by asking questions such as: Which images were available as models at that time? Which images did the administration want or prefer? Why did the authors nevertheless produce something else? And why were these images finally accepted?

In all these cases, Kelsey pays great attention to the cultural as well as to the social dimension of the artists’ work. From the cultural point of view, he emphasizes the fundamental openness of the archive. The survey brought forward new situations, for which the administration had not yet found the models to be followed or obeyed, and the official desire for "positive" pictures —clearly visible in the fact that so few of the commissioned images were actually used (or used only in modified or censored forms) — was so vague to that there was room for personal input. From the social point of view, the author focuses on the political unbalance between those (WASP and wealthy) who were in charge of the expeditions and those (often from other ethnical and religious background, and not always well educated) experienced during the field-work. Yet this unbalance was both cause of hardship and of new opportunities for the immigrants.

I can only call Robin Kelsey’s book a watershed publication. It revolutionizes many theoretical ideas on the notions of style, archive, or subject. At the same time, it succeeds in articulating an approach that allows for a return of the individual without downsizing the role of the discursive and historical constraints in image-making and image-taking. Archive Style contains numerous stimulating reinterpretations of the corpus of survey photography but also of that of the distinctive artists and photographers. One can, therefore, only hope that this book will open new ground for reading the clash of the subjective and the objective in photography and, more generally speaking, in art history and cultural history.



Updated 1st November 2007

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