Orality of the visual 

By Karen Herland

This photograph <em>Northern Nigerian Market, 1963</em>, was one of the many taken by Martha Langford’s father. Part of Langford’s current research project undertaken with her brother, John Langford, is called <em>A Cold War Tourist and His Camera</em>. Magnifying glass

This photograph Northern Nigerian Market, 1963, was one of the many taken by Martha Langford’s father. Part of Langford’s current research project undertaken with her brother, John Langford, is called A Cold War Tourist and His Camera.

The relationship between the disciplines of history and art history often seems abstract, a function of language more than process. However, when Associate Professor and Concordia University Research Chair in Art History Martha Langford recently addressed a packed seminar room in the Centre for Oral History and Digital Story Telling, the connection was tangible.

History professor and Canada Research Chair on Public History Steven High introduced her lecture, “Regarding the Photographs of Others” on April 2 pointing out “synergies between what she does and what we do.”

Langford echoed this link. “There’s a lot of potential for commentary on each others’ work.” Her lecture was a guide for working with other people’s images and stories when attempting to understand past experiences or events – whether or not the people themselves are encountered.

Langford began her lecture discussing “the shock of recognition I experienced when I first grasped the oral dimensions of photographic albums.” Drawing on Walter Ong’s theories of orality, Langford’s research on hundreds of photo albums, donated to the McCord Museum, contested the presumption that photographs are literal depictions. Instead, she explored how presentation and role-playing “transforms photography into an event rather than an object.”

Langford’s thesis explores photography as a tool for prompting memory and telling stories. She focuses on the layers of intention buried in the decisions to stage a photograph and place it in an album selecting a particular order or arrangement.

Her research on photo albums was published as Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums in 2001. It is no coincidence the volume is required reading in some of High’s courses.

The photo albums she studied “blasted chronology to bits and were neither truthful nor dignified in their representations of socializing rituals and significant events.” Instead, the repetition of certain depictions, or images from a single event scattered across an entire album, revealed more about the album’s compiler.

Langford noted that polite conversation dictates that you ignore repetitions or less-than- perfect representations, but for the oral historian, the opposite should be true.

“You might have this blurry, unclear image, but that serves as a prompt to talk about how the photographer almost got a shot of the President,” Langford said. This concept of photo as place-holder for a story instead of a straightforward record of events appealed to High in its potential for oral historians using photos to jog the memories of their subjects. Langford drew a parallel between visual and oral historians’ need to “determine patterns and follow repeats,” for the subtle changes, revisions or gaps they might reveal.

These same themes, and the relationship between photographer, subject and reception, are evident in Langford’s current project. She is working with her brother, John Langford, to analyse boxes of Kodachrome slides taken by their father, James Warren Langford, when he participated in a program developed by the National Defence College in 1962-63, at the height of the Cold War. The slides depict his travels through North American military installations in Africa and Europe.

Langford and her brother, a geo-political specialist at the University of Victoria, are interested in how the images “supplement or correct the canonical narrative.” In fact, the images are a mixture of globetrotting traveller (many of the images mimic the style of National Geographic) juxtaposed against the “the nightmare of nuclear annihilation” with images of missiles depicting both power and threat.

While reconstructing the lives of strangers using photo albums is difficult, dealing with material produced by people you know well creates a different set of challenges. The presentation ended with a lively discussion raising some of the potential strengths and pitfalls of using family material as research subjects.


Concordia University