Print this Page. Send this Page.

Considerations towards an iconography and iconology of natural disaster photography until 1920

Speaker: Christian Rohr (Bern)

18.06.2012, 6 pm to 8 pm

Darmstadt: Technische Universität, Robert Piloty-Gebäude, Hochschulstraße 10, Raum S2-02 C 205.

The visual representation of natural disasters might be fairly well reviewed in account to media as woodcuts, etching and landscape painting, but early photography (before 1920) on this topic has remained uncharted territory for research. Thus, this paper aims to not only describe photographs on floods, avalanches, volcanic eruptions, major fires and other extreme natural phenomenons with regard to their visual content (iconography), but – by comparing the images – will attempt to work out recurring motives of symbolic relevance for the perception of disasters (iconology).
On the one hand, it is necessary to question in how far photographs are adequate sources for reconstructing the events themselves – keeping in mind that it is more regularly the consequences of the event that are depicted, and not the events themselves. Also, it remains unclear if shots of floods have been taken at top water level, or not. Significant shots at night were generally impossible, and elements in motion (e.g. people, floods) remained out of focus until at least the late 1880ies.
On the other hand, it is only in comparison that previously unexpected details emerge. Images of the dead or dying, for example, are absent with rare and justifiable exceptions, and become a common subject only after World War I. In representations of floods, boats in the streets are used to dramatize the image, even if the water level is no more than several centimeters. With fires – both after volcanic events or major fires – the focus often is set on charred trees. In many cases, people serve as “extras staged for the image”, not least because of the impossibility to capture moving people in focus.
Yet, early photographs of natural disaster had the function to create individual and collective memories, as, for example, sheets of pictures inserted into local newspapers. After disastrous events, photographs would be made available for purchase, with the net profit being awarded to the victims – thus, they became a medium of expressing one's solidarity.
The results presented in this paper originate in part from a research-based seminar at the University Bern in 2011's fall semester, during which we started to establish an image database containing currently about 460 images and to be continuously expanded (access granted only on request).

back to programme