Flooded Focus: the construction and evaluation of photographic meaning in Alexander Henderson’s 1869 Snow and Flood album, by Elizabeth Cavaliere

In April of 1869, the record amounts of snowfall that the city of Montreal, Canada, had received over the winter began to melt. The city was swept with floodwaters as the banks of the Saint Lawrence River spilt over. Photography played a key role in the documentation of this unusual phenomenon with dozens of photographers imaging the unusual sights of boats floating in market squares and along Montreal’s commercial and residential avenues. While scholars have examined the documentary aspect of these photographs, most notably David Harris in “Alexander Henderson’s Snow and Flood” (RACAR, 1989), little work has been done to relate these flood photographs to nineteenth-century aesthetic movements of the Sublime and Picturesque, or to question the experiential, emotional and ethical significance of these disaster images. Acknowledging Harris’s position that the flood photographs of Alexander Henderson exemplify the “use and value of photographs as documentation” (160) within nineteenth-century attitudes towards photography, this paper will seek to reexamine Henderson’s flood photographs and album as teetering between documentation, art, and experience. Indeed, Harris’s position is reflective of the caution put forth by Rosalind Krauss in her 1982 essay “Photography’s Discursive Spaces,” in which she identifies that there exists a tension when thinking about early landscape photography where the topographical photograph is not an autonomous work of art that participates in aesthetic discourse but rather is a product of the scientific survey – documentary and unaesthetic. While Krauss’s arguments have been fundamental in urging scholars to consider the impact of back forming judgments on photographs, the result in much current scholarship has been to remove the photographs too hastily from aestheticizing approaches towards landscape photography in an over-corrected attempt to return photographs to the documentary origins of their production.

My proposal, while keenly aware of these tensions, is to examine the ethics of back forming judgments on nineteenth-century Canadian photographs by highlighting the potential of a more nuanced and culturally embedded study of the Henderson’s flood photographs. Putting aside the tensions of past and present readings of photographs as something to be kept resolutely separate for fear of anachronistic interpretations, I wonder what there is to be learned about the past and the present uses of photography. What would happen if we were to understand the twofold ethical implications of both contemporary scholarly interpretation and of the aestheticization of disaster in Henderson’s Snow and Flood through experience with contemporary albums of a similar nature? How did these photographs entice, engage, memorialize and organize the event of the snow and flood for the viewers and purchasers of the album? What types of things might be revealed or confirmed by placing Henderson’s photographs of Montreal along side the contemporary flood photographs of Robert Polidori in his New Orleans After the Flood (2005-6) which entice an emotional response through aestheticization while simultaneously making record? By focusing on the ethics of back forming judgments on nineteenth-century Canadian photographs this paper hopes to expand on the understanding of the role and impact of Henderson’s Snow and Flood album both at the moment of its creation and within current art historical practice.

Elizabeth Cavaliere, Concordia University, CA

Harvard Citation Guide: Cavaliere, E. (2012) Flooded Focus: the construction and evaluation of photographic meaning in Alexander Henderson’s 1869 Snow and Flood album, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 20 May 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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