Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Anthropology and Photography conference, British Museum, 29-31 May 2014

Conference poster

On Friday 30th May I presented an illustrated paper at the Anthropology and Photography conference at the British Museum, organised by the Royal Anthropological Institute. My paper 'Excavating images: a photographic response to an archaeological excavation' was selected for inclusion in the Archaeology and Photography panel, convened by Dan Hicks (Oxford University) and Lesley McFadyen (Birkbeck). I gave a draft of this paper in March at a TVAD research seminar, and the feedback from colleagues helped to develop the paper, which references my experience as an Artist in Residence during an excavation last summer.

Here is my abstract:

In 2013 Timespan Heritage Museum in Scotland commissioned photographic artist Carolyn Lefley as their Artist in Residence during the excavation of a longhouse ruin. This paper explores the relationship between photography and archaeology, referencing Lefley’s methodology and photographic output.

This illustrated paper examines the parallels of the process of excavation, of peeling back the layers of earth to reveal evidence of the past and the indexical quality of a photograph to record reality. What is interesting about most excavations is that the site being revealed pre-dates the invention of photography.

Lefley collaborated with archaeologists to make a photographic response to the excavation. Fieldwork was combined with research exploring notions of home, the Highland Clearances (including diaspora and migration), excavating and documenting, art and archaeology. Out of this research and time spent daily at the dig, Lefley made new work using a variety of photographic techniques to create new artefacts that now sit alongside the findings of the excavation in the museum. The paper concludes with a presentation of the photographic output from the excavation. ‘The Diaspora Stones’ are a new collection of pseudo photographic fossils exploring key themes linked to the excavation, including abandonment, home and migration. ‘The Descendants’ are a series of photographic portraits taken at the dig site, which reference the tradition of the human scale in archaeological photography. 

The Diaspora Stones, Carolyn Lefley, 2013

The Archaeology and Photography panel was in a more relaxed setting in a seminar room in the Clore Centre, at the British Museum. The chairs were arranged in a semi-circle, which encouraged dialogue. It was an encouraging, yet critically engaged group, including academics and practitioners from across the disciplines of art, photography, anthropology, archaeology and heritage, with many knowledgeable across all of these fields. Colleen Morgan (University of York) presented 'Archaeological Photography as Dangerous Supplement?'. Colleen states in her abstract: "Archaeology has a long, complex, and fascinating entanglement with photography, a relationship that continues into the digital age. To understand the florescence of digital photography in archaeology, we must inhabit an interdisciplinary space, a space that lies between the compound field of visual studies and archaeology but that also attends to issues of representation, authority, and authenticity”. Colleen's paper beautifully summed up this interdisciplinary space of visual studies (and visual art) and archaeology. Another paper addressed this notion directly: ‘Dust on the Lens: Intersections in Archaeology and Art Photography’ Ursula Frederick (Australian National University). Ursula’s excellent paper looked the work of Australian photographers who “think and practice archaeologically”. Antonia Thomas (University of the Highlands and Islands) presented an engaging, well-written biography of photographs of the Brodgar Stone and explored “the role that photography plays in constructing archaeological narratives”. Helen Wickstead (Kingston University, cofounder of the Art+Archaeology research group) and Martyn Barber (English Heritage) presented ‘Drawing on Photographs: Aerial Photogrammetry and Virtual Mapping, 1865 to 1900’. This paper interrupted “the assumed visual equivalence between aerial photographs and maps by highlighting the work that has been necessary to allow aerial photographs to operate like virtual maps”. The full list of papers in this panel can be seen here:

There is not enough space in this blog post to discuss all of the papers in this panel, let alone the whole conference (which had an overwhelming amount of parallel panels). I enjoyed being part of this panel and got some helpful and encouraging feedback on my paper (mainly in the all-important coffee breaks / wine reception!). I’m hoping some of the connections I made during the conference will lead to future collaborations.

Highlights from the rest of the conference include:    

It was an extremely rich programme, of which I only scratched the surface, because of all of the parallel panels. The RAI are planning on bringing out a publication to archive this event, but only a selection of the papers will be included. I’m going to finalise my paper and as well as submitting to the RAI, I will also look at submitting this paper to photography journals and online interdisciplinary journals. Overall, it was a really positive experience, which I’m still processing and reflecting on. Anthropology and archaeology are not areas that have conscientiously influenced and informed my practice until the residency last summer, which has sent me on a trajectory into new areas. 

Here are the slides I used to illustrate my spoken paper:

An interesting synergy of photography and archaeology is represented on the RAI flickr site for this panel, where my works sits alongside the work of delegates Antonia Thomas and Ursula Frederick.

You can read about my Art/Archaeology residency from last summer here:

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