Dr Sarah James
Sarah teaches courses on the relationship between art and photography in the 20th and 21st centuries; the history of photography; art, culture and the Cold War, and Eastern European art. She received a B.A. in Social and Political Sciences and the History of Art from the University of Cambridge (2001), and an M.A. (2002) and PhD (2007) in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. She was an Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin (2008-2009), and a Lecturer at the University of Oxford (2009-2010). Sarah has published numerous articles, chapters and catalogue essays on photography and contemporary art. She also writes on contemporary art as a critic, contributing regularly to the magazines Frieze, Photoworks, Art Review and Art Monthly.
Sarah’s current research interests include: German photography; photo-essays and documentary practices; East German art, and the relationship between aesthetics and politics in contemporary practice. Her book Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain, will be published by Yale University Press in March 2013. The book begins in 1955 - the year that Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man exhibition opened in West Berlin, and Bertolt Brecht’s photo-book The War Primer was published in East Berlin. It uses these two landmark events in postwar photographic history to examine a series of documentary projects from East and West Germany which emerged from the 1950s to the 1990s, including exhibitions, photo-essays, private archives and photo-books. The ways in which photography is deployed in a serial or sequential manner - relying on the affects, experiences and political identities produced either through the accumulation of sameness, or the violent juxtaposition of difference - is investigated. Postwar German photography is relocated in relation to Soviet, American and French photographic developments, the specific cultural experiences of the Cold War, and the shifting politics of German identity. Further, the book reconsiders the relationship between prewar Weimar photographic culture and the postwar photography of the Cold War period. Exploring the collectivist and individualist identities forged under communism and consumerism, it attempts to reanimate the political agencies embodied in the different models of seeing articulated by each photographic project, so that instead of being approached as historical documents, they can continue to teach us valuable lessons about documentary’s politics and its pedagogical functions today.
Sarah is currently working on two new book projects. The first, provisionally titled Photography Against Itself: When the Countercultural Inhabited the Mainstream - Rethinking the 1940s, 50s and 60s will explore the work of figures such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edith Tudor Hart, Erwin Blumenfeld and William Klein in relation to photojournalism, print culture, fashion photography and cinema. One of the central questions addressed by this project is whether the politicised photographic artists associated with the New Left in the 1970s, such as Allan Sekula - despite providing invaluable materialist critiques of photographic modernism and the documentary medium's function within capitalism - were too quick to condemn populist forms of production (particularly the photo-essay as it appeared in magazines), and to relinquish the mass/popular audiences they engaged to the marketplace. The book will explore the production, dissemination and reception of the work of this series of politically progressive, radical or critical photographers who managed to inhabit both the countercultural and mainstream concurrently. The book will think about the mobility of images in this context - the ways in which they reached a wide audience, but often (whether intentionally or not) went against the grain of their contexts; radically subverting their contents. This both demanded and produced a nuanced and self-reflexive kind of reader. Given the totalising nature of capitalism and the market today, the project hopes to articulate new strategies for critical and progressive photographic practices which can also produce new and political publics beyond the museum.
The second project provisionally titled Paper Revolutions: The Unofficial Art of East Germany will explore the paper-based practices - from maquettes, drawings, concrete poetry, conceptual practices, to mail art and photomontages - of a marginalised group of artists who worked from the 1950s to the 1980s under really existing socialism in the German Democratic Republic. With chapters on Hermann Glöckner, Gerhard Altenbourg, Carlfriedrich Claus, Robert Rehfeldt and Jürgen Schieferdecker, it will contextualise their experiments in relation to the role played by paper-based networks of correspondence and samizdat literature, and consider their work in both its insular and international dimensions. It will problematise the reading of such artists as non-conformist, unofficial or disengaged by examining their relation to the State in more detail, and by exploring the Marxist, materialist, dialectical, socialist and utopian aspects of their works, alongside the complex and inconsistent reception of the historical avant-gardes in East Germany.
Sarah is interested in
supervising doctoral research on any aspect of photographic or documentary
practice; German modern, postwar and contemporary art; artistic and cultural
production during the Cold War.
Research on contemporary art and projects which engage with photographic theory
or the Frankfurt School would also be welcome.
Recent Selected Publications:
– Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain, Yale University Press, 2013.
- ‘House of Dada: Erwin Blumenfeld’, Frieze DE (German and English), Issue 9, April-May, 2013, pp. 84-91.
- ‘Maggie and the Fairytale of the Free Market’, Chateau Despair: Lisa Barnard, Gost, London, 2013, pp. 56-63.
– ‘Modernism & Photography’, in Companion to Photography, ed., Stephen Bull, WileyBlackwell, forthcoming 2013.
– ‘Waste as a Figure of Thought: Hermann Glöckner’s Utopian Part-Objects’, currently under review at New German Critique.
– ‘A Post-Fascist Family of Man? Cold War Humanism, Democracy and Photography in Germany’, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 35, Issue 5, November 2012.
– ‘A Socialist Realist Sander? Comparative Portraiture as a Marxist Model in the German Democratic Republic’, Grey Room, 47, Spring 2012, pp. 38-59.
– ‘Burkhardt von Harder’s Archive Mirror’, Photoworks, Vol. 18, Spring/Summer 2012, pp. 4-17.
– Maggie, Maggie, Maggie’, Photoworks, 15, Autumn/Winter, Oct 2010, pp. 72-79.
– ‘Subject, Object, Mimesis: The Aesthetic World of the Bechers’ Photography’, in Diarmuid Costello and Margaret Iversen, eds., Photography After Conceptual Art, WileyBlackwell, 2010, pp. 50-69.
– ‘Photography’s Theoretical Blind Spots: Looking at the German Paradigm’, Photographies, Vol. 2, No. 2, September 2009, pp. 255-70.
– ‘Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’, Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2009, Stefanie Braun, ed., Photographers Gallery and C/O Berlin, February 2009, pp. 134-6
– ‘Making an Ugly World Beautiful: Morality and Aesthetics in the Aftermath’, Memory of Fire: The War of Images and Images of War, Julian Stallabrass, ed., Photoworks, Brighton, 2008, pp 12-15.
A list of publications is available from UCL's Institutional Research Information Service via the Iris link below.
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