Photography Research Group

The Photography Research Group brings together scholars in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities whose research addresses the history, theory, and practice of photography. We are working from different disciplines (English and cultural studies, art history, and art practice) with the aim of investigating photography’s relation to disciplinarity. Through this investigation, the research group will engage with some of the central debates in photographic interpretation. The problem of photographic interpretation has gained renewed currency due to the recent rise of new modes of photographic production and circulation. The ubiquity of digital photography and web-based imagery has made the question of the photographic a central concern to a broad range of scholars. The study and use of photographs crosses a variety of institutional and disciplinary fields. Yet, the field devoted to its study, the history of photography, has been located within the history of art. This tension between the disciplinary location of the history of photography and the interdisciplinarity of photographic practices has been a key problem in photographic theory. One of the most obvious tensions is that scholars from some disciplines use photographs as primary-source objects to support research, whereas scholars from other disciplines view the photograph as an object of research itself. We are interested in whether photography is a disciplinary object to be studied through the traditional methods of art historical analysis, or whether it is an interdisciplinary object without a central methodology.

Photography theorist John Tagg has argued that photography is a discursive system, rather than a coherent object or a unified medium or technology. According to Tagg, the term photography refers to an array of practices, which operate across a range of institutional spaces. In one place, photography may be specified as instrument and record, while in another, it could be produced as artistic expression or commodity. [1]   When photography is considered as a discursive outcome rather than as a coherent medium, the meaning and status of a photograph are considered as an event. The study of photography would thus entail an investigation of the rules that govern and constrain the performance of a photograph, with an understanding that the performance is always both conditional and specific.

Another theorist, Geoffrey Batchen, has argued that the nature of photography can be understood through a study of its own history. He has attempted to think through the ways that photography has changed the institutions in which it has been deployed, and he has advocated looking at the way photography itself has been altered by entering into various institutional spaces. [2] Batchen has thus suggested that there are specific things that photographs do; photography has effects that are not simply due to its “investment” by external relations. Batchen’s claims open up the possibility of a photographic methodology that might move across the interdisciplinary spaces of photographic practice.

Recent scholarship, such as Tagg’s and Batchen’s, opens up the question of how to study photography. To explore the question of photography’s relation to disciplinarity, the research group will bring together scholars whose work employs a range of methodologies and investigates a variety of photographic practices. Drawing on the group’s expertise in the study of photographs from a range of fields, the research group will search for both points of commonality and disjuncture in the interpretation and analysis of photographs. 

Our research group is affiliated with a similar group of Toronto-area scholars working on the history and theory of photography. The group has been awarded a grant York Seminar for Advanced Research from 2006-2007. The members of the UWO Photography Research Group meet regularly with the Toronto group to discuss recent scholarship in the field and to respond to each other’s current research projects. In partnership with the Toronto scholars, the outcome of the research group will be a series of papers on the theme “The Circulation of Photographs,” which will form the basis for an issue of the international, peer-reviewed journal, History of Photography.

[1] John Tagg, Grounds of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics and the Discursive Field (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 143.

[2] Geoffrey Batchen, Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 178.




Sarah Bassnett, Assistant Professor, Department of Visual Arts

Professor Bassnett’s current research examines photography and social progress in early twentieth-century North America. Her publications include “Picturing Filth and Disorder: Photography and Urban Governance in Toronto” in the journal History of Photography (2004) and essays on exhibitions of photography and photography at the British Library in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of 19th Century Photography (Routledge). She has also published numerous essays and reviews on Canadian architecture and contemporary photo-based Canadian art


Thy Phu, Assistant Professor, Department of English


Kelly Wood, Assistant Professor, Department of Visual Arts

Professor Wood is a photo-based artist and writer who received her Master of Fine Arts at the University of British Columbia in 1996. Wood's conceptually based art practice arises from the international work of the late 1960s, more specifically out of the Vancouver "Photo-conceptual School" initiated by Ian Wallace. Her largest undertaking is a work titled Continuous Garbage Project (1998-2003), a five-year documentary project whereby she photographed her personal garbage on a regular basis. This work was shown in solo exhibitions at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery, Vancouver and the Power Plant, Toronto.

Sarah Bassnett