• The elusive subject: Representing the abstract and unseen history of place with photography

Wiblin, Ian, 2023, Thesis, The elusive subject: Representing the abstract and unseen history of place with photography PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

Abstract or Description:

This PhD is by practice. Central to its research is Bertolt Brecht's criticism of photography, expressed through an imagined photograph showing the exterior of a factory building, in terms of its limited ability to reveal social conditions. The significance of materiality, in the form of human labour, to Brecht's critique can be revaluated in the light of current theories of New Materialism. Such thinking demands a deeper critical enquiry into material concerns – extending here to the material essences that determine and sustain the materiality of human labour itself. This theoretical position, adopted from new materialism, is applied to the discussion of the thesis and the methodologies of the practice. Within this framework, the research has sought to identify strategies variously employing photographic media and other elements that recognise the potential of new materialist thinking and which can achieve the depth of revelation demanded by Brecht.

A range of historical and contemporary photographic and other works, those of Robert Smithson and Bernd and Hilla Becher foremost among them, have been critiqued in part through the filter of new materialism to reveal the deeper material properties impacting upon their making and appearance. The results of this enquiry have been tested through methodologies formulated and applied in practice to the exterior of a specific architectural structure representative of Brecht's factory. The building chosen, the Bank of England, though not a factory is a workplace loaded with historical, architectural, political and social significance. The resulting works, informed by concepts developed within new materialism and realised in photography and digital video, aim to invite interpretation engaging the viewer with material essences of the Bank – both as a structure and as an institution – including such essences that make tangible abstract notions of power, wealth and credit. In this way, the developed methodologies of practice have sought to reconnect the Bank building to the material essences of its history and of its site, thus linking, in theoretical terms, the historical materialism of Walter Benjamin with new materialism.

The research demonstrates that theories of new materialism can be usefully applied to the field of photography – to its critique and to the formulation of working methodologies within practice. Ideas of new materialism have developed over the last decade (in areas such as feminism and ecology) but have yet to be applied to photography. Thus, the mapping of new materialist thinking onto photography and photographic practice achieved within this research represents a contribution to knowledge that moves photographic theory forward.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Creative Arts and Design > W200 Design studies > W210 Graphic Design > W213 Visual Communication
School or Centre: School of Communication
Uncontrolled Keywords: Photography; Architecture; Ruin; (New) Materialism; Affect
Date Deposited: 21 Feb 2023 11:26
Last Modified: 21 Feb 2023 11:26
URI: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/5282
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