Workers and Consumers: The photographic industry 1860-1950

By Shannon Perry

Workers and Consumers: The photographic industry 1860-1950. This was the focus of the recent conference, arranged by the PHRC, at De Montfort University, June 24-25, 2013. For the first time, I attended a photographic conference in which I heard terms like “Fordism” applied to the photographic industry. Plate wars, backdrops as a means for copyright and the fascinating early marketing campaign by Boots, along with photographic histories other than England, France and the United States were discussed in depth. Before going any further, I feel I should disclose that I am currently attempting to write a Ph.D. dissertation concerning the photographic network 1880-1914, and so by default, one would hope I’d find this conference interesting (or find a new research topic pronto), but I know I was not the only one to sit nodding vigorously at many of the points made during the presentations, and furiously scribbling notes for later digestion. I should also mention that I was merely an eavesdropper on the proceedings, and did not present a paper, lead a panel, or ask any stimulating or debate inducing questions. I simply sat and listened. Absorbed.

I will also say that I felt vindicated that I am working towards (hopefully) being one day included in what I see as a ‘new school’ of photographic theory/scholarship. Is it too early to tell if this ‘new school’ is gaining cohesion and/or momentum? I don’t think so.  Judging by the overall strength of the papers and discussion occurring over the two days at De Montfort, I think exciting people and ideas are definitely coming together.  Starting with Steve Edwards inspiring and thought provoking opening keynote ‘Working Lives in Photography’, we listened to and discussed papers concerning various parts of the photographic industry, including the workers, users, and end repositories of the often overlooked ‘common’ photographic industry. What I mean to say, is that the subject matter was not focused on the well-trod path of ‘art historical’ based photographic theory, or the elite class of photographers and customers that usually dominate photographic discussion. It was about turning the corner.

To wit, a few days after the conference I read in Regina Blaszyczyk’s introduction to her 2009 edited volume Producing Fashion: Commerce, Culture and Consumers: ‘To date, cultural historians of fashion have collected many of the pieces and assembled them to reveal a portrait of an elegant couple attired in haute couture, poised to promenade through the luxurious shops of the Champ Elysees, New Bond Street, or Fifth Avenue. Yet much is missing from the picture: the people on the side streets, dressed in ready-to-wear apparel or home sewn clothes they believed were stylish; the distant lofts where the clothing was designed; the garment factories where it was made; the stores where it was sold; and the advertising executives, retail managers, market researchers, design –school instructors, magazine editors, and other ingenious entrepreneurs who worked behind the scene to produce fashion’ (p. 18). When I read this, I thought “Yes! Change a few words around, and this could be about the photographic industry instead of fashion.” So, how do we begin to populate those side streets, office buildings and warehouses? What do the workers and consumers outside of the big names and cities look and sound like? How do we begin to weave the various narratives into something we can understand and use? The papers presented at ‘Workers and Consumers’ are a giant step in this direction, and the audience of over 65 scholars in attendance supports that there is an interest/need in exploring this further. One of the co-chairs Elizabeth Edwards mentioned to me that this conference would ideally be part of a series – so stay posted!

One thought on “Workers and Consumers: The photographic industry 1860-1950

  1. One of the great things about the conference is that we got to see what most of photography has been about which is producing pictures for consumption. While most scholarship has traditionally focused on the rarefied world of the artist photographer who has the liberty to work for themselves, the majority of photography is made by those who are making a living by providing pictures to the public, whether they are pornographic stereocards in Paris in the 1860s, pictures of window displays in the local department store in the 1930s or portraits of Santa Claus with children in the 1950s. There are far more people who have worked in the photographic industry than traditional photographic histories have presented to us. I loved the broad range of topics and was glad to add to the mix with a presentation.

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