Open Dialogs in Archaeological Photography

a session proposed for the May 6-8, 2011 meetings of the Theoretical Archaeology Group at the University of California, Berkeley 

Session Proposal by: Heather Law, PhD Student UC Berkeley

Confirmed Discussant: Dr. Ruth Tringham


In a discipline that has yet to master the balance between the subject and the object; the human and the thing, photographs can inhabit uniquely limbic and potentially very powerful positions. Photographs provide a tangible middle ground between the observing subject and the observable object, and in so doing, reaffirm both the situatedness of human perspectives and the sovereignty of the material world.  Photography’s ability to transcend time and space imbues it with more power still, allowing it to trigger a spectrum of reactions in and effects upon its viewers, all of which both distort and convey meaning.  Among other things, photographs can remember, forget, idealize, anesthetize, and democratize (Benjamin 1936; Barthes 1966; Sontag 1977); yet archaeologists have just begun to question the authority, ambiguities and tensions that lie within the photographs we use in our work.  This session will attempt to discuss the past and potential roles of photography in archaeology.  From artifact photography to photographs as artifacts, from documentary photography to art photography (and everything that lies between); what does archaeological photography “do”?  How might we rethink or renew the practice?

Session Format

          I would like to invite archaeological photographers to participate in a uniquely formatted session, designed to initiate a dialog between fellow participants and their work.  Each participant will submit a cohesive body of work (between 1 and 10 photographs) either digitally or in print, along with a short (400 words or less) statement of intent explaining their position as a photographer and the goals of their work.  These submissions will be displayed in an as yet undetermined open space (still working on that part) for the duration of the conference.  During the assigned session, participants will introduce their work by presenting their prepared statement, after which discussants will lead the group in a short (10-15 min) discussion about the work and its potential for dialog with other works in the session.