The Camera as Historian

Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885–1918

The Camera as Historian


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Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: 121 photographs (duotones), 1 table Published: April 2012

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Art and Visual Culture > Photography, History > European History

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, hundreds of amateur photographers took part in the photographic survey movement in England. They sought to record the material remains of the English past so that it might be preserved for future generations. In The Camera as Historian, the groundbreaking historical and visual anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards works with an archive of nearly 55,000 photographs taken by 1,000 photographers, mostly unknown until now. She approaches the survey movement and its social and material practices ethnographically. Considering how the amateur photographers understood the value of their project, Edwards links the surveys to concepts of leisure, understandings of the local and the national, and the rise of popular photography. Her examination of how the photographers negotiated between scientific objectivity and aesthetic responses to the past leads her to argue that the survey movement was as concerned with the conditions of its own modernity and the creation of an archive for an anticipated future as it was nostalgic about the imagined past. Including more than 120 vibrant images, The Camera as Historian offers new perspectives on the forces that shaped Victorian and Edwardian Britain, as well as on contemporary debates about cultural identity, nationality, empire, material practices, and art.


“... the book has to  be commended for its outstanding comprehensive depiction of the cultural values that gathered around the abstractions of history and national identity and induced a sweeping domestic movement to reify them in visual form.” — Laurie Dahlberg, CAA Reviews

The The Camera as Historian provides a dense amount of information about the photographic survey movement, as well as aspects of Victorian and Edwardian Britain that shaped the survey movement. . . . But the content and ideas are interesting and provide an original perspective, making any extra effort in the read a tremendously worthwhile venture.” — Mary Desjarlais, Photogram

“If you are an archivist interested in the connection between popular history and photography then this book will appeal to you. It is a complicated reminder of the tension between the desire to photograph and the social forces that fuel that desire.” — Deirdre A. Scaggs, Views

The Camera as Historian is unquestionably a major work of the new photographic history. As I have indicated it is now the benchmark study of mass photographic practice; it is inventively conceived, meticulously researched, and full of new ways of thinking about photography, history, and many other things.”
— Steve Edwards, Oxford Art Journal

“[A] fascinating and remarkable new book. . . . It is also a pleasure to use, being beautifully produced, with (as would be expected) a wonderful collection of photographs, magnificently reproduced—and. . . it is outstandingly good value.” — Alan Crosby, Local Historian

“Probably because of the scope, British survey photography has lacked extensive studies, so this thoughtful analysis by Edwards of a complex set of practices and narratives is welcome. . . . Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above.” — S. Spencer, Choice

“This is a great book on a great subject by a great author (and, yes, by a great publisher as well, for the amount and quality of the often never published images in this well designed and impressive volume is exemplary). . . . If good history is a dialogue between past, present and future, then The Camera as History is best history.” — Jan Baetens, Leonardo Reviews

”This is the only comprehensive monograph on the survey movement, for which Edwards has identified 73 surveys, or regional bodies of work that were focused on particular towns, counties, and cities. Her analysis of the pictures is commendable as she describes the ‘historical imagination’ that these amateur photographers articulated through the surveys. . . . Serious researchers on this topic will appreciate the thorough work offered here, which is well documented in notes and appendixes.” — Eric Linderman, Library Journal

“Essential and exciting reading for anyone interested in the visual culture of this period. Edwards’s achievement is to make the activities of one group—or linked groups—of people speak to the nation’s sense of itself and of how its physical character should be preserved and remembered. No less important is the way in which she makes us think about how photography may best be understood as history and what its responsibilities may be.” — Kate Flint, Journal of British Studies

The Camera as Historian is lavishly illustrated and is underpinned by excellent research. . . . story of the representation of England and Englishness at the turn of the twentieth century. The design is clear, the reproduction of the photographs is excellent and the appendices are useful for further reference. . . . [I]t is an equally important read for those interested in photographic theory and technology, social and cultural histories of England, and for our colleagues in the libraries and archives on whose legacies our research relies.” — Joanna Sassoon, History of Photography

“We owe a great debt to Elizabeth Edwards for heroic acts of retrieval – not only the long hours she put into the research, but also the encyclopaedic work of analysis represented in this book.” — Peter Mandler, Social History

“Building on her groundbreaking work on anthropological photography, The Camera as Historian establishes Edwards as a role model in the field of photographic history. Addressing both the concerns of theory and the riches of the archive, Edwards exposes the foibles of these Edwardian amateurs without any bad-faith assumption of chauvinism. Adorned with over a hundred illustrations and a useful bibliography, scholars and graduate students in the fields of photography, visual culture, social, and cultural history will receive multiple dividends from reading and discussing this book.”   — Nicole Hudgins, Journal of Social History

"Beautifully illustrated and well written, The Camera as Historian is a welcome account of the little-known early twentieth-century Photographic Survey Movement, but it is also a stimulating foray into the complicated relationship between photography and history." — Michael Paris, European History Quarterly

“Edwards demonstrates a true mastery over her material and an adept use of critical theory, such that the book remains wholly engaging. The Camera as Historian positions Edwards as anexemplar in the writing of history and ethnography within the fields of photography and visualculture. With over one hundred illustrations and a comprehensive bibliography of primary andsecondary sources, this book will surely remain a useful reference on British survey photography and a model historiography of both British history and photography.” — Taylor J. Acosta, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide

“The book is rich, tender, and complex, and represents a valuable contribution to those working across all the disciplines Edwards draws from.” — Elizabeth Haines, Journal of Historical Geography

"I am Australian, and thus very distant in space and experience from these landscapes — but just holding and looking through Edwards’s beautiful book fills me with nostalgia and longing for a landscape I have never known.... Erudite and nuanced, this rich and suggestive book raises many issues and points to further work."  — Jane Lydon, Victorian Studies

"The Camera as Historian offers groundbreaking insights into the entangled relations of photography and history, the recording impulse in modern British history, the complex links between visual practices and the historical imagination, and the intellectual and cultural traditions that frame representations of the past. It is significant as the first in-depth look at the fascinating and important work of the British survey movement: its participants, driving impulses, economies, audiences, values, and successes and failures. The book is made all the more important by Elizabeth Edwards's insistence on attention to the ways that photographs were produced and translated, and her demonstration of a mode of historical interpretation that not only links critical theory and archival practice, but illustrates their inseparability." — Jennifer Tucker, author of Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science

"In this magnificent study, Elizabeth Edwards approaches the photographic survey movement in England above all as a practice: a relation between photographers, photographic technologies, photographs, and the material traces of the past in landscapes. This practice, as Edwards shows in rich detail, was extensive, amateur, public, local, and reflexive. With its empirical depth and conceptual reach, this book enhances immensely our understanding of the mediation of both history and geography by photography." — Gillian Rose, author of Doing Family Photography: The Domestic, the Public and the Politics of Sentiment


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Elizabeth Edwards is Professor of Photographic History and Director of the Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University in Leicester. From 1988 until 2005, she was Head of Photograph and Manuscript Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, where she was also a Lecturer in Visual Anthropology. Edwards is the author of Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology, and Museums; editor of Anthropology and Photography, 1860–1920; and a co-editor of Photography, Anthropology and History; Visual Sense: The Cultural Reader; and Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Material Culture and the Senses.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface xi

Acknowledgments xiii

1. "Sacred Monuments of the Nation's Growth and Hope": Amateur Photography and Imagining the Past 1

2. "A Credit to Yourself and Your Country": Amateur Photographers and the Survey and Record Movement 31

3. Unblushing Realism: Practices of Evidence, Style, and Arachive 79

4. "To Be a Source of Pride": Local Histories and National Identities 123

5. "Doomed and Threatened": Photography, Disappearance, and Survival 163

6. "To Quicken the Instincts": Photographs 7. Afterlives and Legacies: An Epilogureas Public History 209

7. Afterlives and Legacies: An Epilogue 243

Appendix 259

Illustrations 269

Notes 273

Bibliography 305

Index 321
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5104-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5090-3
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