The Photographic Relic

Sepia photograph showing historical objects linked to a prison i Mathew Brady & Co., The Relics of Andersonville Prison (1866), 8 3⁄4 x 7 3/8 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Albumen silver print from glass negative.

Whittled wooden spoons, crude baking dishes, artillery shells, and soup bones form a strange, altar-like arrangement. Collected by Clara Barton from the notorious Confederate prison camp immediately after the American Civil War, these objects were then photographed by Mathew Brady’s studio. Widely circulated at the time, Relics of Andersonville Prison (1866) allows for a transformation by which pain is detached from the original site—the human body—and signified by inanimate things that retain a physical link to the past. This talk asks how the photograph itself might function as a relic, what the material and ontological significance of such a characterization could be, and how the relic as object and as photographic image provided a historically-specific means to contend with the pressing questions of finding, naming, and burying the dead of the Civil War.

Jennifer Raab is Associate Professor in the History of Art at Yale University. She specialises in American art and visual culture with particular interests in the history of photography, aesthetic theory, the history of science, and the relationship between literary and visual representation. Her first book, Frederic Church: The Art and Science of Detail (Yale University Press, 2015), examines the changing visual, cultural, and historical meaning of detail in nineteenth-century America. Her current book project, Relics of War (under contract with Princeton University Press), considers how the work of photographing warfare—and specifically violence to the body—shaped post-Civil War photography in the United States.

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8 Oct 2018

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London