Thinking with photographs at the margins of Antarctic exploration (2011)
AuthorsMcCarthy, Kerry Bridgettshow all
This thesis seeks a portable and accessible model for centralising photographs in enquiry. I argue that photographs are potent sites of human value making but are typically relegated to illustrating word-based considerations, while the vast mass of ‘ordinary’ photographs are excluded from even this function. The context in which I develop and test the model is the heroic era of Antarctic exploration, a time and place that is dominated by an entrenched mythology, and where photographs have been assigned a merely pictorial role. In seeking to reactivate these objects and pictures I turn to Elizabeth Edwards’ notion of using photographs to think with, tracing the evolution of this idea through generations of thinking about photography, and emphasising recent writers such as Geoffrey Batchen, Margaret Olin and Joan Schwartz. My work confirms a resonance with Edwards’ thinking but also a need to emphasise photographic materiality and the photographic collective. Further, I demonstrate that this thinking also resonates with the work of Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, confirming a construction of photographs as generative anchoring points in networks of identification that are both culturalised and subjective.
My model for thinking with photographs draws in Kenneth Burke’s pentad of dramatistic analysis, arguing a productive fit with his concern to filter the rhetorical detritus of human behaviour as an entrée to viewing core motivations. The pentad has not previously been used to think with photographs but it is able to be deployed successfully for this purpose by refreshing its operation in line with writers such as Robert Cathcart, James Chesebro and Gregory Clark.
For Antarctica, thinking with photographs involves negotiating margins – depicted, physical, temporal and ideological, and in addressing the photographic mass this thesis argues a reactivation of margins as points of insight rather than barriers of exclusion. Recent writers such as Francis Spufford, Stephen Pyne, John Wylie and Kathryn Yusoff have found new ways to construct the performance of Antarctic exploration, and, in this spirit, the thesis enacts Burke’s pentad to think with the photograph collection of ‘second tier’ Antarctic explorer, Ernest Joyce. It shows Antarctic exploration to be also an intensely personal experience, with the power to overhaul mindsets but offering no guarantee that new expectations can be delivered on. In Joyce’s photographs it finds a nexus of contested narratives and contested photographies, and the seeds of a Benjaminian modernity that speak of the personal implications of the dissolution of meta-narratives.