Photo of Professor Michelle Henning

Professor Michelle Henning

Chair in Photography and Media Communication and Media

Research

Photography and media history and theory

From the series Year Without A Summer, 2016. ©  Michelle Henning
From the series Year Without A Summer, 2016. © Michelle Henning

My research and teaching in the history and theory of photography stems from my interest in the place of photography in contemporary society. In particular, and throughout my career, I have been interested in the newness of digital photography, and the ways in which the history of chemical photography is reimagined in order to produce a particular understanding of contemporary practices. So part of my work involves a media archaeology of photography, focussing on developments in the first half of the twentieth century. Other writing and research addresses contemporary developments, situating photography within a larger media ecology that includes emoji and other icons, text and video. In particular, my work challenges the idea of photography as a medium that ‘fixed’ a fleeting reality, and the focus on the photographic print as the epitome of pre-digital practice. This is a core theme of my book Photography: the Unfettered Image (2018). In 2018 -19 I was awarded an AHRC leadership fellowship to produce and disseminate research on the Ilford Limited photographic company, in a project that focuses on the 1920s and '30s, but situates the history of photographic technologies within a larger history of sensory experience and everyday life. From this funded project came a series of workshops for artists and members of the public at The Photographer’s Gallery, London, entitled The Stuff of Photography (July 2019), and a conference called Light Sensitive Material (November 2019), as well as a number of publications. Simultaneously, I am working on several essays on the role of the mass image in an economy centred around attention and data, and on changing concepts of photographic realism.

Isotype and Otto Neurath

Isotype 'Picture dictionary' leaf from binder, Gerd Arntz, 1929-33, from the Otto and Marie Neurath Collection, Department of Graphic Communication, University of Reading ©  Isotype revisited 2009–19.
Isotype 'Picture dictionary' leaf from binder, Gerd Arntz, 1929-33, from the Otto and Marie Neurath Collection, Department of Graphic Communication, University of Reading © Isotype revisited 2009–19.

In 2007 I was awarded an AHRC grant to study in the archives of Otto and Marie Neurath, which are located at the University of Reading and the University of Vienna, as well as several other city archives. My work is particularly concerned with the range of Otto Neurath’s work during his time in Britain from 1940-45, from his work with Marie in the Isotype institute, in which they pioneered the communication of statistics and information using a system of visual icons, to his work as a theorist of design and of happiness in this period, and how this work connects with his role as a logical empiricist and key member of the Vienna Circle. Publications that have come out of this work include “Living life in pictures: Isotype as Modernist cultural practice” in New Formations, 2011; “The pig in the bath: new materialisms and cultural studies”, in Radical Philosophy, 2007; and “Of Tennis Courts and Fireplaces: Neurath's internment on the Isle of Man and his Politics of Design”, 2018.

Museums and exhibitions

Since the early 2000s, I have researched and taught on the subject of museums. My work in this area developed out a dual interest in avant-garde exhibition practice of the early twentieth century, and in the use of taxidermy in museums, in relation to environmental politics, the rise of technical media and changing conceptions of realism and of curiosity. This developed into an ambition to bring media theory to bear on museums, not to reduce museums to media, but as a means of staging a productive encounter that might allow us to rethink both museums and media. My 2006 book Museums, Media and Cultural Theory was a direct attempt to do this, and I have also published several essays in key museums studies volumes. My edited collection Museum Media was published as volume 3 of the International Handbooks of Museum Studie, under the general editorship of Sharon Macdonald and Helen Rees-Leahy, in 2015. The essays it contains were all original pieces which I commissioned from experts in both museums and media studies. It also includes an essay by me which brings together my work on photography and on museums: “With and without walls: photographic reproduction and the art museum” (published online 2013; print in 2015). My work on museums has led to numerous public talks, including at the Museum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland; FACT Liverpool; the V&A, London and Spike Island, Bristol.

Research Grants

Aesthetics, Industry and Innovation in Twentieth Century Photography: The Ilford Archive

ARTS AND HUMANITIES RESEARCH COUNCIL (AHRC)

September 2019 - November 2019