What does Photography Preserve? Reification and Ruin in the Photographic Heritage of a Place Called Montreal
Photography was recognized as an instrument of heritage preservation from the moment of its inception in the early nineteenth century, when projects such as Les Excursions Daguerriennes (1841-1843), a set of Romantic engravings of monuments based on photographic documents, established the links between sight and science, memory and history, hortatory reification and ‘ruin lust’ (Brian Dillon, 2014). This session was conceived in the certain knowledge that almost every speaker at the conference would use photographic technology as a window onto the past, present, and even the future, with very little comment on the lens itself. “What Does Photography Preserve?" intends a reflexive approach to the relationship between photography and heritage practices, as manifest in architectural history and theory, urbanist, environmental, and photographic studies, and as practiced by documentary photographers and conceptual artists – actors from cognate disciplines unified by their interest in the built environment and its created communities, but divergent in their emphases and confidence in the various forms of photographic representation. Our focus on Montreal strengthens the dialogical structure of the chapters and allows for more sustained critical analysis of objectives and outcomes in the uses of photography.
The papers collected here touch on diverse people, neighbourhoods, or epochs, but all are Montreal stories. As the speakers engage with photographic traces, aspects of the city’s past come in and out of focus, becoming intelligible and available for contemporary viewers. These case studies thus reflect on Montreal’s unique history – as the erstwhile economic and industrial hub of Canada, as the prime venue for encounters between Anglophones and Francophones, as the site of intermittent modernist epiphanies, and so on. Montreal becomes a compelling object of study on its own terms, while also taking shape in relation to an interdisciplinary field of urban scholarship that has flourished in recent years. Cities are not regarded as mere containers for cultural activity; instead, a line of thinkers encompassing Walter Benjamin, Henri Lefebvre, and Jane Jacobs (amongst others) has approached the dynamism of cities in complex theoretical terms. What is at stake is how people profoundly inhabit the spaces of a city, and how cultural memory become embedded in its built environment. The material heft of architecture and streetscapes remains important for any analysis of urban space, alongside political and economic imperatives, but speakers in this session also emphasize the everyday vitality of urban environments, so that at any given moment the identity of a city is also forged through a wealth of social encounters and ephemeral gestures.