Anne Burke: Reinterpreting MoDA’s photography collections

Thousands of photographic images can be found within the books, folios and prints of MoDA’s collection. They depict various subjects, from nineteenth-century portraits to botanical images of trees, flowers and plants. They also depict museum objects such as textiles and ceramics from Europe and elsewhere.

SR188 Lilies of Japan

Image from ‘Lilies of Japan’ book by K Ogawa, 1893. SR188.

Many of these photographs were acquired by the Silver Studio as part of a reference collection to inspire designs for wallpaper and home furnishings. But they also tell the story of how photographic processes, and the uses of photography, evolve over time.

This is beginning of a new line of inquiry for MoDA, and we are working collaboratively with colleagues in Middlesex University’s Photography department to develop new ways of thinking about and researching this collection in partnership with students.

The photograph as artefact

One of our areas of interest is the physical photograph and its relationship to the archive. There has been much recent work in this area by scholars, but it is has been less explored by photography students, whose access to photographic images has been mainly as a digital medium.

So in collaboration with Anne Burke, we designed a series of sessions that looked at photographs as primary research material. We asked: what can be learnt from the type of printing technique, the mode of distribution, the type of paper, and the information that might be inscribed on the surface of the photograph? What can we find out from all the extra-visual information that such archival images can give us?

Students from Middlesex University’s TV Production course interviewed Anne about this:

The collotype

In the coming months we will focus on different kinds of photographic reproduction from the perspective of technology. So far we have looked at some of the collotypes in the Silver Studio Collection.  The collotype is a technique of photo-mechanical reproduction that requires a great deal of artisanship, given its lengthy process and the array of skills that are involved in its making.

It has been fascinating to discuss with students how the experience of looking at archive photographs has lead them to conceive of their own creative processes very differently.  We look forward to working with students to develop our shared understanding of historic photographic processes.

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