In the wake of radical disruptions to former photographic centres of power in industry practice and in scholarly viewpoint, and with the exemplary Kodak collection at National Science and Media Museum at its core, this collaborative doctoral project reappraises the history of popular photography in the museum and the academy. It asks how museum collections can tell the story of popular photography practice in an age of dramatic technological and industrial change; and it contributes to new histories of photography that put everyday practices front and centre.
Traditional photographic histories, particularly those that have followed an art historical model, have marginalised popular photography as a form and a practice despite its evident dominance in terms of the sheer volume of images produced and circulated, and its commercial impact, for well over a hundred years. Although recent scholarship has attempted to correct this bias, and to reposition popular photography in its rightful position at the front and centre of photography studies, it remains an under-theorised area. At the same time, 'the photographic industry' – once constituted as a network of commercial organisations – has been transformed fundamentally by information and communication infrastructures not specifically designed for photography. Key players who once played such a dominant role, as comprehensive, vertically-integrated companies covering all aspects of film, processing and equipment, have failed to keep up with the dramatic changes, and in some cases, such as Kodak, have been declared bankrupt. With radical disruptions to former photographic centres of power – both in industry practice and in scholarly viewpoint – the time is right for a historical reappraisal of popular photographic practice, supported by an exemplary collection.
The Kodak Collection at National Science and Media Museum is one of the largest and most diverse museum collections of cameras, images, and photographic ephemera from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the world. The collection came to Bradford in the late 1980s from the Kodak Museum in Harrow, and it has played a major role in communicating the history of photography to National Science and Media Museum's audiences through the permanent Kodak Gallery. The collection represents not just a significant set of objects that inform the history of photography, but a body of material that has been critical to the way that National Science and Media Museum has been communicating this history to a broad public.
The PhD student will investigate the changing role of photographic collections as tools for communicating shifting notions of popular photographic practice. Building on the scholarship on popular photography that has developed in recent years, this project will examine how its histories have been told through this unique collection and examine the opportunities it presents for new scholarly approaches to the medium; this includes examining its contemporary cultural significance. The challenges to the telling of popular photographic histories that emerge from new scholarship will inform National Science and Media Museum's strategy for the Kodak Gallery as it moves towards the second stage of its master plan in 2022.