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Documenting the World

Film, Photography, and the Scientific Record

Imagine the twentieth century without photography and film. Its history would be absent of images that define historical moments and generations: the death camps of Auschwitz, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Apollo lunar landing. It would be a history, in other words, of just artists’ renderings and the spoken and written word. To inhabitants of the twenty-first century, deeply immersed in visual culture, such a history seems insubstantial, imprecise, and even, perhaps, unscientific.

Documenting the World is about the material and social life of photographs and film made in the scientific quest to document the world. Drawing on scholars from the fields of art history, visual anthropology, and science and technology studies, the chapters in this book explore how this documentation—from the initial recording of images, to their acquisition and storage, to their circulation—has altered our lives, our ways of knowing, our social and economic relationships, and even our surroundings. Far beyond mere illustration, photography and film have become an integral, transformative part of the world they seek to show us.

Read the introduction.

288 pages | 27 color plates, 40 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Art: Photography

Film Studies

History: History of Technology

History of Science

Media Studies


“In a series of essays, this work covers the history of photographs and films as documentation—in legal, cultural, and scientific fields. The essays span an extensive range of historical periods (from the Victorian period to contemporary times) and technological advances. Discussions include the daguerreotypes used as visual evidence in the Victorian-period Tichborne Claimant trial; how color photography was varyingly perceived and adopted by Great Depression-era photographers; the implications of art museum and other nonprofit partnerships with for-profit companies, such as Corbis, during the advent of the World Wide Web; and the utilization of digital techniques to help researchers perceive the electromagnetic light spectrum of Martian landscapes captured by robotic "eyes." The overarching thesis of the collection is that as enticing as it is to consider photographs and films as static representations of time and place, physical and digital manifestations are not immune to documentary, observer, cataloging, or archival biases…. Recommended.”


“Too little attention is paid to what we gain when we pay attention to the history of photography and documentary film. Happily, editors Mitman and Wilder show us how still and moving images can significantly deepen our grasp of the evolution of scientific work; they have gathered together here an impressive group of distinguished scholars across the fields of science and visualization. We have needed a book like Documenting the World for many years—I have no doubt that it will prove to be an important addition to existing scholarship.”

Peter Galison, Harvard University

Documenting the World posits the fascinating impulse for documentation that emerged in the late nineteenth century as a desire to visualize, order, and preserve the world. Photographic and filmic documentation, as Mitman and Wilder conceive of it, is an active process that transforms subjects, relationships, environments, and disciplines. The first book to explore the documentary impulse in photographic media from a cross-disciplinary perspective and with theoretical sophistication, Documenting the World brings together scholars from social history, anthropology, art history, and science studies.”

Tanya Sheehan, Colby College

“This is an innovative and exciting collection of essays. The contributors’ perceptive treatment of three key themes—the documentary image as evidence, the circulation and recirculation of images, and the histories and meanings of image archives—provides original insights into the documentary impulse and its cultural and material significance. Documenting the World presents cutting-edge research that will advance history of photography and film scholarship in novel and significant ways for years to come.”

Finis Dunaway, author of Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images

"This book succeeds in its aim of expanding the contemporary focus on image analysis of photographs and videos as visual texts through interdisciplinary studies of documentary photography and filmmaking; their social, cultural, and political grounding; and related technical processes. Historic photographs effectively illustrate the themes of most essays and extensive explanatory captions, references to published sources, and end notes are included."

H-Net Reviews

"Providing nine distinct perspectives on the roles of still and moving photographic
images in the construction of documents and evidence, the volume gathers established and emerging researchers from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. Each chapter illuminates different manifestations of ‘the documentary impulse’ in the form of photographs and footage, of course, but also through a wealth of elements supporting the status of a given film or photograph as document – including, but not limited to, picture frames, colour filters, captions and mounts, expedition reports, narratives, shelving systems, catalogue entries, online search engines, and metadata. . . . As the introduction makes clear, the project has been executed in collaboration among all contributors, and when reading the volume from cover to cover (which is an unusual way of reading an essay collection, but one I deeply recommend in this instance) the contributions by Edwards and Mitman work particularly well to weave the different strands of the project together in the middle, as it were."

History of Photography

Table of Contents

1 Introduction
Gregg Mitman and Kelley Wilder

2 Moving Pictures: Photographs on Trial in the Sir Roger Tichborne Affair
Jennifer Tucker

3 The Colors of Evidence: Picturing the Past in Photography and Film
Peter Geimer

4 Mars in the Making: Digital Documentary Practices in Contemporary Planetary Science
Janet Vertesi

5 Uncertain Knowledge: Photography and the Turn-of-the-Century Anthropological Document
Elizabeth Edwards

6 A Journey without Maps: Film, Expeditionary Science, and the Growth of Development
Gregg Mitman

7 Archival Exposure: Disability, Documentary, and the Making of Counternarratives
Faye Ginsburg

8 Reverse—Cardboard—Print: The Materiality of the Photographic Archive and Its Function
Stefanie Klamm

9 Photographic Cataloguing
Kelley Wilder

10 The Excess of the Archive
Estelle Blaschke


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