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Retouching The Archive: Gender and Class in Early Photography in Scotland

This project explores gender and class in the early history of photography in Scotland. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, women’s experimental practice was at the centre of the scientific breakthroughs that would later become known as photography, yet they sit, still, in its margins. Foregrounding the contributions of these women, this practice-based research moves across photography, writing and creative archival research processes in order to work cross-historically: returning to this period in time in order to recover and repair a marginalised history. Its historical subjects include: those denied access to formal education and scientific societies who foresaw and reflected on their silencing; those who campaigned for access to instruments of science; those who laboured in and around the production process of early photography, including unnamed assistants; those illiterate, working class women who were the subject of early Scottish photography, too. What happens to the history, discourse and practice of photography when we start to identify these women, speaking of, to – ultimately for – their work?

Working with archival holdings in public collections of photography and civic history in both Scotland and England, with the sites of Old Observatory House and what has become known as the ‘world’s first photographic studio’, Rock House, on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, Newington on the Green, a site of protofeminism, and Newhaven on Scotland’s North Sea, this project seeks to retrieve and re-enact the labours of women’s photographic production. It reappraises the ‘invention’ of photography in 1839 by engaging with the undervalued work of women who were publishing their chemical and optical experiments in advance and alongside this date. Following Lütticken’s theorisation of re-enactment as activating ‘a potential waiting’ (2005), the project re-enacts the published technical workings of women’s scientific experiments, returning to their sites of working in order to experience again, at a distance of over 200 years, their still-thrilling pre-photographic moments of discovery. Using a cabinet of crystals belonging to a lineage of protophotographic thinkers, it works with Grant’s notion of an ‘embodied engagement with history’ (Grant 2022) to rethink the role of women in early photography.

In this art practice, reparative actions are used to make the invisible labour of these women’s production visible. In this creative retrieval, a physical encounter emerges. So too does a methodology that can perhaps offer us an understanding of the perception and experience of photography. By working with touch – through the re-creation of photographic processes – the limits of the archive are breached. A method of re-touching is established that not only creates new artworks but also generates new forms of embodied knowledge in the archive, where the hapticity of sources becomes felt and understood, and a conversation can be enacted between past and present. The object of study is re-touched through practice. What ‘meanings’, ‘presences’ or ‘agencies’ are held in these conceptual traces? This project asks weather this creation and encounter with the materiality of the photographic artwork can help us to understand the agency of women and their invisible labour in the invention of photography. Relatedly, how do we measure, mark and represent that invisible labour in visual and physical terms? Through retrieval and re-enactment, non-verbal, non-visible and non-dominant narratives are reactivated. Ultimately, the practice theorised here attempts to create a space for the photographic thinking and photographic viewing facilitated by women in so many different ways to ‘speak back’, telling us of the labour contained in their material forms, of the lives they provide windows onto. Working with Azoulay’s call for ‘potential histories’ (Azoulay 2019), this is about reinhabiting and reimagining the feminist past to recover significant and marginalised histories of early photography in Scotland.


More about Caroline

Caroline Douglas is an artist working with photography and moving image. Her PhD by Project looks at the gendering of photography since its invention. Driven by the archival, haptic and optic, she focuses on the role of women in early Scottish photography and proto-photgraphy. This work incorporates a range of photographic collections and archives, including; the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the University of Glasgow, and the University of St Andrews.

She is part of the steering committee for the School of Art and Humanities Open Research Network Speaking of Her and on the Advisory Board for the RSE Network Women Make Cities. In 2019 she co-organised Speaking With- a one-day event exploring voicing historical subjectivity at the Royal College of Art. She is a contributor to Photomonitor, and has worked as a tutor and lecturer at The Glasgow School of Art, Edinburgh College of Art and Edinburgh Napier University, and is also a tutor at Stills Centre for Photography.

In 2021 she undertook two Doctoral Training Partnership placements, one at the V&A Museum as a Cataloguer (Photographs) and the other at Collective, Edinburgh.

In 2022 she was awarded a Research Support Grant from the Royal College of Art to undertake archival research on the Mary Somerville Papers held in Special Collections, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. In 2023 Caroline won the Scottish History Society Alasdair Ross Prize and became the recipient of The Royal Photographic Society 2023 Postgraduate Bursary.

Postgraduate Master of Fine Art (with Distinction), The Glasgow School of Art, 2010

BA (Hons) Photography, (First Class), Edinburgh College of Art, 2006

Archival Research, Mary Somerville Papers, Special Collections, Bodleian Libraries, 2022

Women Make Cities, Advisory Board, Royal Society of Edinburgh Research Network, 2020-

Doctoral Training Partnership Researcher, Observatory House, Collective, 2021

Doctoral Training Partnership Cataloguer (Photographs), Victoria & Albert Museum, 2021

Steering Committee, Speaking of Her, RCA Open Research Network, 2019

The Facture of Research; a process-led residency enquiry into method for artist-researchers, University of Cumbria, 2018

Art and Design Studies Tutor, (Photography), Edinburgh College of Art, 2012-2017

Photography Lecturer, BA (Hons) Photography, Edinburgh Napier University, 2012-2017

International Residency, Project Fabrika, Moscow, Russia, 2011

AiR Artist in Residence, Fondazione Fotografia, Modena, Italy, 2010

MFA Postgraduate Residency, School of the Art Institute, Chicago, 2009

Re:Create Artist in Residence, Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2008

BA (Hons) Exchange, Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, 2005

The Royal Photographic Society Postgraduate Bursary, 2023

Alasdair Ross Prize, Scottish History Society, 2023

Research Support Grant, Royal College of Art, 2022

Andrew Wyld Support Grant (Paul Mellon Centre), 2020

Association for Art History Grant Award, 2019

Scottish Society for Art History Research Support Grant, 2019

The British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS) Funding Grant Award, 2018

Women’s History Scotland Bursary, 2018; technē Doctoral Training Partnership, Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), 2017-2020

University of St Andrews Library Visiting Scholarship, 2017

Retouching the Archive: Encountering the Paper Calotype, Andrew Wyld Support Grant, Paul Mellon Centre, 2020

techne Scholarship, the AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership, 2017

Unruly Encounters, Royal College of Art Group Show, Lake Gallery/Dilston Gallery, 2022

Chemistry of Colour, St Andrews Photography Festival, 2019

There's Something Lurking in the Shadows..., Royal College of Art - Group Show, 2019

'SEND BACK THE MONEY!' An Evening With Frederick Douglass, Organised by Dr. Hannah-Rose Murray and Dr. Arun Sood, The Jam House Edinburgh, 2018

FLIGHT MODE, Royal College of Art Group Show, Asylum, Peckham - Group Show, 2018

Documents, Lumen Studios, The Crypt, Bethnal Green - Group Show, 2018

Flash Forward 2016, Magenta Publishing for the Arts, Toronto - Group Show, 2016

BPF OPEN16 Showcase & Moving Image Showreel, Brighton Photo Fringe, 2016

Thingness, Künstlerhaus, Dortmund, Germany - Group Show, 2016

Mount Florida Screenings 01, Mount Florida Studios, Glasgow - Screening, 2016

Evidence, FORMAT International Photography Festival, Quad, Derby - Group Show, 2015

Zero Hours Creativity, Edinburgh Art Fair, Represented by Stills Gallery - Group Show, 2015

An Attendant’s Portrait: A One-Day Installation at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 2013

Mémoire Involontaire, Columbia University School of the Arts, New York - Group Show, 2012

9th International Helen Keller Award, Glasgow Caledonian University - Group Show, 2011

Reflection: Contemporary Visual Arts and Crafts in Edinburgh, City Art Centre - Group Show, 2012

Everything that comes before us, Project Fabrika, Moscow - Solo Show, 2011

Transience, Photography Open Salon, Arles at Gallerie Huit, Arles - Group Show, 2011

New Work Scotland Programme Annual Showreel, Collective Gallery, Edinburgh - Screening, 2010

Retouching Postpartum (photograph) ‘I Care By…’, ed. Gemma Blackshaw, London UK: Royal College of Art, 2022

'Frederick Douglass: Witness to Early Scottish Photography', National Galleries of Scotland Blog, 2021

'Postpartum: Unlearning Conception and Photography', CARE(less), MA BIBLIOTHÈQUE, 2021

'Pictures and progress? Frederick Douglass and early Scottish photography', V&A Blog, 2021

'Sonsy Fishwives: Gender and Class in Early Scottish Photography', Studies in Photography (Spring), 2021

'A Conversation: Tait / Maxwell', PROVA, the annual RCA Humanities Research Forum Journal, Issue 5, 2020, Royal College of Art

'Conceiving Reproduction', PROVA, the annual RCA Humanities Research Forum Journal, Issue 4, 2018, Royal College of Art

Paul Mellon Centre: New Discoveries - Through her research and her own photographic practice, Caroline makes an exciting discovery after uncovering a series of outtakes from the calotype portrait of Mrs Elizabeth Johnstone Hall, 2021

Symposium Co-Organiser, Speaking With- voicing historical subjectivity, with Marita Fraser, Royal College of Art, 2019

Pioneers of Colour: Fulhame and Somerville’s Protophotography, Colour Matters Exploring Colour and Chromatic Materialities in the Long Nineteenth Century (1798-1914), Trinity College, Oxford | 2023

'[he] had a very low opinion on the capacity of my sex': Mary Somerville (1780-1872), Feminist Histories of the Future, Henry Moore Institute | 2023

Cloths of Gold and Experiments on Light, Colour Fever, V&A | 2021

Ways of Seeing, Second Morton Photography Symposium, Glasgow Women's Library | 2020

Where Are The Women?, Friday Night Mixer, Scottish National Portrait Gallery | 2019

Extraordinary Creative Summer Session, The Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 | 2019

Afterlife of the Object, European Summer School, University of Copenhagen | 2019

Spectre of a Woman, DRN Summer Symposium, Paul Mellon Centre, London | 2019

Newhaven Madonna, Say Something Back, Merton College, Oxford | 2019

Women, Work and Commerce in the Creative Industries, Britain 1750 – 1950 V&A | 2019

Pickling, capturing and collecting, History of Art, University of St Andrews | 2018

Visiting Scholar Talk, Martyrs Kirk Research Library, St Andrews | 2017