Tag Archives: Archive

Industrial Photography Performed: The Struggle for Energy from Modernism to the Cold War


Our joint presentation drew upon photographic materials produced in the context of the industrial development of energy production in the United States and the GDR. While the photographs discussed in our presentations were produced in distinct political systems, at different points in time—Modernism in the early 20th century and towards the end of the Cold War in the 1970s—from different perspectives and for different audiences, the common ground between both papers is the analysis of the uses of photography and how they performed in the struggle for energy. Therefore, both case studies present different views on how photography was used as a medium through which the exploitation of natural resources for energy production was visually represented and commercially and socially understood.

Using the Ralph Arnold photographic album collection at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, the first study outlined the use of photography as a key element in the formation of the emerging oil industry in the Western United States in the early twentieth century. Ralph Arnold (1875-1961) was an American geologist and petroleum engineer whose photographs taken during several geological surveys in California, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Texas were part of a collective scientific and financial effort to lobby for appropriate oil taxation and the recognition of the role of the petroleum engineer in oil exploration.

The second study discussed the visual dialogue between Nguyen The Thuc’s Kohle unter Magdeborn (Coal beneath Magdeborn) (1976), a photographic album documenting an open cast coal mining site and the devastation of its inhabitant community in the GDR, and Christiane Eisler’s series of commissioned photographs of the revisited mining site and contemporary Leipzig, produced in the period 2012 to 2014. The album and the new series of works were shown together in the 2014 exhibition Freundschaftsantiqua in Leipzig (Germany). The bodies of work reflect the changes in the industrialised environment through expanding and contracting resource extraction and the effects on its inhabitants. They are also documents of an international cultural production and GDR culture politics. The medium of photography was selected as exhibition focus due to its propensity to visually communicate across different cultures.

wood fossil_Magdeborn

Fossilised tree fragment, entrance area at Zweckverband Abfallwirtschaft Westsachsen waste deposit site, 2015, photograph: Bergit Arends

Freundschaftsantiqua_installation detail

Freundschaftsantiqua 2014, Galerie fuer Zeitgenoessische Kunst Leipzig (Germany), exhibition detail, photography: Sebastian Schroeder


Jointly we explored the performativity and fluidity of meaning of photographic images. How is meaning shaped by institutional discourses, disciplinary perspectives, and expertise. How were photographs taken by petroleum engineers used to shape the oil industry in terms of scientific exploration, commercial capabilities and policy reforms in the American West? How did the project from the GDR contribute to, or contravene, a political and environmental discourse in documenting how humans were affected by a visibly polluting energy production? Or did the images in both case studies contribute to a discourse of personal sacrifice towards a collective ‘greater good’ and moral duty for the nation?

Bergit Arends and Noeme Santana



+ contextual reading on the international circulation and audiences of photographs of American West taken by Timothy O’Sullivan during the Clarence King Surveys between 1867 and 1872:

Brunet, F., (2012) ‘Showing American Geography Abroad in the Victorian Era: The International Reception of the King Survey Work’, in: Timothy O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs, Davis, K. and Aspinwall,J. (ed.), New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 185-195

+ for some insights into GDR photography by a GDR/Germany-based curator. Exhibition catalogue of the first survey exhibition of GDR photography in the UK, curated by Matthew Shaul:

Immisch, T. O. (2007), ‘Appearance and Being: GDR Photography of the 1970s and 1980s’, in: Do Not Refreeze: Photography behind the Berlin Wall, exh. cat., Manchester: Cornerhouse Publications, pp. 24-27

+ one history on the subject of energy in the USA and Germany

Radkau, J., (1996), ‘Energy: Genie or Genius? – How steam, electricity and oil heralded global change’, History Today, vol 46; MNTH 11, pp. 14-19

+ photography theory from 1983 for social and economic discourses on images at the example of images (1948-1968) by a commercial photographer in the coal-mining region of Cape Breton:

Sekula, A. (2003) ‘Reading an Archive. Photography between Labour and Capital’, in: The Photography Reader, Wells, L. (ed.), London: Routledge, pp. 443-452

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A Week in Leipzig: From censored punk portraits to Johann Sebastian Bach’s motets on Saturday afternoon, 18 April 2015

view from Zweckverband Abfallwirtschaft Westsachsen waste deposit site, April 2015

View from Zweckverband Abfallwirtschaft Westsachsen waste deposit site, April 2015

April 2015

April 2015

I had spent time over the Easter break with the family at my parents’ place in Eastern Frisia on the Dutch-German border (I am German, from the former West). My train ride to Leipzig took me on a journey from West to East starting at Emden via Oldenburg, Bremen, Hannover, Magdeburg, and Halle, to Leipzig in the former German Democratic Republic. Leipzig has been very visibly renovated since the ‘Wende’ in 1989, a term for the reunification that has crept into everyday use but is criticized by some as a flawed term in as much as it implies some form of restoration. For others that time of change is characterized as the Friedliche Revolution (Peaceful Revolution).[i] This study trip afforded me insights into the city’s complex past beyond the recently gilded and contemporary glassy facades.

My doctoral research, provisionally entitled ‘Experimental Fields: Curating Art and Environment Projects in the Age of the Anthropocene’ considers the relationships between humans and the natural environment with particular attention to field and expeditionary practices, to the co-production of knowledge, and to re-enactment.

One of my case studies is the photographic album ‘Kohle unter Magdeborn’ (Coal beneath Magdeborn), 1976, by photographer Nguyen The Thuc (b. 1949 in Nam Dinh, Vietnam). During the time of the German Democratic Republic he documented the environmental and the social impacts of the intensifying coal mining in Espenhain, near Leipzig. The historic village of Magdeborn was only one of many swallowed up by the expanding open-pit brown coal mine, but seemed to have attracted the most attention. Its around 3500 inhabitants were decanted to nearby villages or the newly-built ‘Plattenbauten’, buildings made from prefabricated concrete slabs, on the outskirts of Leipzig. Thuc accompanied this process over a period of a few months, creating a unique documentation of the bulldozed buildings and the displaced life.

The Espenhain surface mine scored deeply into the landscape to unearth the crumbly brown coal between 1937 and 1994 and was closed after having extracted coal to depths of 60 to 100 m. The site was transformed into the Störmthaler See, which began to be flooded in 2003, creating a lake with a sailing and other leisure facilities. The re-cultivated area and its futuristic landscaping was photographed last year by Leipzig-based photographer Christiane Eisler. Both artists, Thuc and Eisler, were educated at the famous Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts or Hochschule for Grafik und Buchkunst (HGB), where they studied photography. My attention was drawn to the Magdeborn project by Thuc and the retake by Eisler through the exhibition ‘Freundschaftsantiqua’, curated by Julia Blume and Heidi Stecker for the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, which marked 250 years of the school in 2014. The curatorial proposition was to show works by foreign students at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig as a much neglected chapter of international art in the GDR, with a special focus on photography. Interestingly these students often worked on themes that were not officially recognized or were subversive, selecting themes that were taboo in the GDR at the time.[ii]

You can see some works and exhibition installation shots here Freundschaftsantiqua

Thuc documented the people of Magdeborn. A lot of the inhabitants had small holdings, and Thuc recorded details of their everyday lives, their festivities, and their religious celebrations. His photographs became particularly poignant knowing that it was forbidden to talk about the process of ‘decanting’ and the problems of environmental transformation and of pollution. In fact, religious groups in particular started to draw attention to the toxic environments around Leipzig at the time, contributing to the dissidence that led to the change in the late 80s.

Eisler (called Schwenn at the time of her studies) has taken a long-term interest in documenting social environments of marginalized individuals under an oppressive regime and those affected by a changing society. Her portraits of East German punks of the 80s were considered undesirable and were censored. She contributed to the ‘Freundschaftsantiqua’ exhibition with her photographs of defunct sites of labour, the immigrant situation of Leipzig’s Eastern district and by revisiting the former Espenhain site, in whose depths lie the remains of the Magdeborner Heimat (homeland).

Through these photography projects I have started to explore a critique of a utopian societal and economic model. Thuc’s intercultural encounters within the ‘closed society’ of the GDR afford subtle and subversive observations of the dramatic changes in the industrial landscape and the effects on people. I am beginning to explore how Thuc’s transcultural perspective from the 1970s, and Eisler’s existing and commissioned photographs, were reframed through contemporary curating practices.

During my stay, I interviewed one of the exhibition curators, other artists who had photographed the changing landscape, and inhabitants of the extinguished Magdeborn. One day was spent driving and walking the outline of the 1-year old Störmthaler See, which was opened for public use last April. My site-visit started on the Grade 3 waste deposit that now covers part of the former mining site, from which vantage point I could oversee the lake. It was the hottest day of the week when I climbed this ashen mountain of waste.

The GDR in the 1980s was the world’s leading producer of brown coal. The Federal Republic of Germany still ranks among the most significant extractors of the remains of the carboniferous forest, and is engaged in mining sites from West to East. Despite the Energiewende (energy transition) and heavy investments in alternative energies, Germany still relies on coal, the more so since its stepping away from nuclear power following Fukushima. A layered model of an anthropogenic Earth would picture the gaping holes in the land left by coal extraction, a transformed society through energy generation, and an atmosphere laden with CO2 caused by burning coal. How do artists critically represent our hunger for energy? Can we afford to be sentimental about the loss of Heimat as the cost of the energy demands that underpin our standard of living? Does our understanding need the top of a waste heap from which to look down onto the moonscape of a surface pit or the turquoise mirror of a leisure lake?

On my last day in Leipzig I went to the motet in the protestant St. Thomas church, where Johann Sebastian Bach, was cantor. Every Saturday at 15h the motets are sublimely sung, this time with the world-famous St. Thomas boys’ choir. 70 years earlier to the day, the American troops had entered Leipzig in the last throes of the Second World War. Back home in London I had a heated debate with a German friend about which verb to use for the advancing and the retreating armies and the German population caught up in these battles. Were the Germans in Leipzig ‘liberated’ or were they simply ‘defeated’? The pastor speaking from the pulpit in the St. Thomas church related that the Americans were in Leipzig until 1 July 1945. When American troops withdrew as agreed with the Soviet Union, Leipzig was taken over by the Soviet army. During the time of the GDR the official story was that the Soviets had liberated Leipzig, thereby erasing 10 weeks of American rule from history.

I will use the research material gathered during an intense week to trace the layers of the living archive south of Leipzig. The photographic representations and the narratives evolving around these images are my primary sources. The artists’ works appeal to social justice in their portrayal of the individuals within the different states, which is something I will particularly draw out.

I am exploring landscape as a palimpsest of human interventions and the agency of nature. Artists’ representations of environmental change can draw on the fields of economy, science and technology, and culture. In my thesis research I study and trace these through a number of artists’ works including photographer Chrystel Lebas, installation artists Mark Dion and Hu Yun, and painter Daniel Boyd. Their explorations led them to the re-enactment of archives and to working in the field to create their art. The current debates around the geological age of the ‘Anthropocene’ serve as a framework to analyse and interpret these works afresh. I will look at the understanding of time in nature and humans and the complex role humans assume within nature by being passive observers and active agents.

Bergit Arends

2nd year PhD candidate in Geography and Drama, Reid scholar

I would like to thank the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group in the Department of Geography and the Department of Drama at Royal Holloway, University of London for the support of this study trip.

[i] Simon, A, (2014) ‘Wende? Revolution!’, Die Zeit Online, No. 44

[ii] ‘Freundschaftsantiqua. Ausländische Studierende an der Hochschule fὒr Grafik und Buchkunst – ein internationals Kapitel der Kunst in der DDR’ exhibition curated by Julia Blume and Heidi Stecker at the Galerie fὓr Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig, 1.2.2014 to 1.6.2014, and accompanying Journal #2, issued by the HGB

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a mini-family history, looking closer at personal archive work

“The Archive is made from selected and consciously chosen documentation from the past and from the mad fragmentations that no one intended to preserve and that just ended up there” (Steedman, 1998:67). I would like to bring up the topic of personal archive work. I would like to suggest that a personal archive is a very complex collection of things; they contain memories which embrace the emotional and intimate geographies of people’s lives.

A few years ago, before I started my undergraduate degree, my grandparents (who now live in France) were driving around their own home-town – this sparked hours/days of reminiscing about ‘the-good-old-times’, of which, I am ashamed to add, I knew very little about. Being the only grand-daughter in the family I thought I would ask them a favour…”pretty please spend some time putting together a collection of stories, histories, photos- anything- of your lives – not only for me but for our future families too”. It was a successful venture resulting in, a few months later, a car load of: diaries, journals, photographs, objects and scrap books arriving. So after a visit to the Royal Geographical Society for a half-day of archival research on the 12th February with my fellow Master’s students, my interest in Archives grew, I would not class myself as a ‘historical geographer’, and definitely not as an Archivist, but I like a challenge, and started to delve into the “Human Geography of a Family” (as my Grandmother called it in her main journal).

As I worked through the journals and collections of photographs and objects I found that not only was it was physically hard work but it was quite an emotional experience as well. This is what I decided to concentrate on for my Element 2 ‘Methods’ essay. Emotional geographies focus on exploring and trying to understand how feelings impact and alter our environments, landscapes and social relations (Ashmore, 2012). Emotions are essential when looking at human behaviour as they also have the ability to facilitate our attachment to people and places, as I found through looking into my Grandparents collection. However, although the importance of emotions is clear, they are commonly avoided as a topic of academic research: they are deliberately left out due their complex nature (Meth, 2003).  Emotional geographies are, without a doubt, personal yet at the very core of our collective existence. This emphasis on the significance of embodied knowledge and of celebrating feelings is a challenge to conventional geographical academic writing (Rodaway, 2002). So far through my MA in Cultural Geography I have explored how love can, and should be, an area of geographical study, how diaries can be used as a successful methodological tool for study, and now a paper on how personal archive work can lead to interesting exploration of more than just past environments- but also past emotions. Perhaps this research will lead into more exciting opportunities.

Emma Shenton (MA, Cultural Geography Research)

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Unreal City: Discovering London through the Archive (by Hannah Awcock and Bethan Bide)

London is a complex, vibrant, and diverse city to study (Source: The Guardian)

London is a complex, vibrant, and diverse city to study (Source: The Guardian)

London is a fascinating city, a buzzing metropolis with an incredibly rich history. It has been the subject of an untold number of academic studies, as well as an almost infinite assortment of films, books, poems, pictures and other cultural products.


London is obviously a fantastic city to study. It is the economic, social, political and cultural centre of Britain, and during the heights of the British Empire it served this role for huge swathes of the world. It has a population of over eight million people, who speak over 300 languages. This quantity and diversity of people, organisations and events provides fertile ground for huge numbers of research projects. As well as this, it is almost unrivalled in terms of the archives available for use, and being the focus and inspiration of so much academic and cultural output means that there is a wealth of sources available to study.


We are both studying London for our PhD research; Hannah looks at the historical geographies of protest in the city between 1780 and 2010, and Bethan is working on so-called ‘austerity’ fashion in London after the Second World War, in collaboration with the Museum of London. We are also both utilising archival research in our projects. London is a unique area of study for both of us in its own way. In terms of protest,  London’s role as the symbolic and literal centre of British politics makes it a key location of dissent. With regards to fashion, London is known as a world fashion capital, and although the history and origins of this status are contentious, London has long been a centre for fashionable production and consumption.

An archival glimpse of shopping on post-war regent street.

An archival glimpse of shopping on post-war Regent Street.


One of the first steps when conducting research to to ensure you have a clear definition of the terms involved in your project. However when it comes to London, that is not an easy thing to do. London means so many things, to so many people, that it is hard to pin down a coherent and concise definition. Is London a city of 8.17 million people, or an area of 611 square miles? Knightsbridge or the East End? London is all of these things, but each research project must decide how it wishes to locate itself amid these different definitions, by means of summary or selection.


The richness and diversity of London also pose other challenges to the researcher, particularly when it comes to archival research. Archival sources go through several selection processes; firstly, when the archival institution, curator or individual collector decide which items to keep and preserve, and then secondly when the researcher chooses which materials to use in their research.  As an archivist or collector, how do you choose sources to accurately represent such a varied city as London? As a researcher, which sources best represent that variety within the scope of your research? Is it even possible or indeed desirable to draw meaningful conclusions about ‘London’ as a coherent entity?


The possible existence of a London bias should also be considered. Is London researched too much, at the expense of other British cities? If this is the case, do we as researchers have a responsibility to correct this imbalance? Researchers and academics have a great deal of power in terms of representing the people and places that they study, should we therefore try to ensure that each place is represented ‘fairly’?

A poster for the London Calling demonstration about student tuition fees in 2010 (Source: Coalition of Resistance).

A poster for the London Calling demonstration about student tuition fees in 2010 (Source: Coalition of Resistance).


As you may have guessed from this post, we have a lot of unanswered questions in relation to this topic. For this reason, we choose not to draw conclusions, but instead leave the topic open for further discussion. Do you consider yourself to be a researcher of London? Was it a deliberate decision or simply a matter of convenience? How do you tackle the challenge of researching something of the sheer immensity of London?


Answers on the back of a postcard please (although any thoughts or opinions in the comments would also be very welcome!)


Hannah Awcock and Bethan Bide

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Expeditionary Film, Geographical Science and Media Culture

This PhD project, funded by AHRC and based in Royal Holloway’s Social & Cultural Geography Group, is supported by the newly-established Collaborative Doctoral Partnership between the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and the Royal Society.

The project will focus especially on the production, distribution and presentation of films made on successive Everest expeditions between 1922 and 1953. Drawing on unique archival film collections held by the BFI, the Everest expedition archives and related collections such as The Times archives, the research will consider the logistical and technical requirements of expeditionary film, including the role of Sherpa porters in film-making; the role of media sponsorship in shaping the presentation of expedition work; and how film was shown, and to what audiences, within the context of popular and scientific understandings of mountaineering in the period.

The research will also consider the wider significance and potential uses of the expeditionary film archive. This involves consideration of the role of key organizations, including the RGS and the BFI, in developing a community of interest around geographical film in the first half of the twentieth century. In addition to research in the unique Everest archives and in the associated BFI collection, the project will examine the potential of digital film in the context of public engagement and public memory.

The project will be supervised by Felix Driver (Professor of Human Geography at Royal Holloway) and Catherine Souch (Head of Research at the RGS-IBG). It is supported by the British Film Institute.

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