“Developing Historical Negatives” out now in Photography and the Optical Unconscious

by | Jun 8, 2017 | 0 comments

Academic publishing sometimes feels painfully slow. I learned, towards the end of my PhD, that the average time between finishing a dissertation and getting it edited into and published as a book manuscript is 9 years. 9 years! That felt like an eternity at the time, but I’ve come to appreciate it more recently as a wonderful excuse to give ideas some breathing room and gestation time: to work a bit more slowly and to put less stress and focus on outputs and deadlines.

Now that the first bits of my dissertation project are making their way out into the world, I am grateful for all the time and care that has been put into these propositions and ideas by my colleagues and friends. It feels like just the right amount of time to let them develop into words that can be shared with others.

I’m thrilled that the first part of this work is appearing among so many brilliant minds in Photography and the Optical Unconscious, the edited volume just released by Duke University Press and compiled by my friends and colleagues Shawn Michelle Smith and Sharon Sliwinski.  Emerging out of a day-long workshop on Walter Benjamin’s under-studied notion of photography’s optical unconscious in 2013, the volume investigates “how photography has shaped history, modernity, perception, lived experience, politics, race, and human agency.” It features a roster of artists and thinkers whose work has inspired me for some time, including that of Thy Phu, Mark Reinhardt, Kristan Horton, Laura Wexler and Kelly Wood. It’s excellent company to be keeping.


The chapter I submitted, “Developing Historical Negatives: The Colonial Photographic Archive as Optical Unconscious,” focuses on latency—a key concern in my writing, teaching, curating and research for the last decade—as a process that characterizes photography, pedagogy and the dismantling of slavery in the British Empire. As Smith and Sliwinski write in their introduction:

Gabrielle Moser considers the photographic archive as the optical unconscious of British empire. Examining the massive Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee’s archive of over 7,600 photographs made by Alfred Hugh Fisher between 1907 and 1910, she suggests that latent anxieties about the limits of imperial citizenship register through the figure of the female indentured servant, or “coolie,” in the photographic archive. COVIC used Fisher’s photographs to create lantern slide lectures and texts for children of the colonies, instructing them in forms of imperial belonging. Focusing on photographs of female indentured servants whose liminal legal status troubled the logics of imperial citizenship, Moser models a form of archival research that follows Ann Stoler’s strategy of “developing historical negatives,” finding in images of the “coolie” “alternative visions of the future,” repressed meanings and uncertainties about the colonies that COVIC continually sought to manage. Moser interprets the photographic archive as a repository of images in which latent meanings can be developed by the researcher in ways that are analogous to the analyst’s interpretation of dream images. In her understanding, the archive becomes not simply a static repository of already developed images that cohere according to colonial ideology, but an unstable resource that, through careful analysis, might also reveal the unsettled desires and fears of colonial authority.

These are ideas I’m continuing to develop in the book manuscript that has emerged out of my dissertation research, and I’m looking forward to finding more ways to connect this work with psychoanalytic thinking in my next project, examining representations of Canadian citizenship in the lead up to 1947.