Heather Law

Heather Law is the second featured archaeologist | photographer to appear on the blog, her work on artefact photography raises one of the key themes in recent archaeological photography: the perceived dichotomy between technical or ‘documentational’ photography and photography that aims to convey a feeling, a sensation or a memory. Her photographs seek to tease out the textures and hidden histories in objects and tell these stories using a visual medium.

(c) Heather Law

(c) Heather Law

In her own words:

Although industry standards in artifact photography are often put forward in an attempt to maintain some level of objectivity, illustrative photographs in archaeological publications often succeed in communicating little but the commonness and insignificance of the material culture in question, especially when the artifacts are the result of mass production in the industrial era.

Without a doubt there are times when scales, backdrops and shadow free lighting become necessary tools in the creation of effective visual aids, however the insistence on these conventions exclusive of other styles seems limiting with the realization that a photographer is no more objective than an author.

In the world of historical archaeology, where so much of the material culture recovered is seemingly the same mass produced objects; photography has the distinct ability to capture both the affective qualities of these objects as they appealed to the consumer as well as the patina of a unique use life. What stories are told in the images on a serving vessel? How can the physical textures of use, discard, and decay tell an object’s life history?

While the artifacts are often a result of mass production, they are also objects of individual consumption- consumption which was at least in part dictated by a growing sense of individuality in the industrial era. Because we seek to access the consumer through these objects, perhaps artifact photography should focus more on the material qualities which may have made these objects appealing to individuals and show them as they were experienced by these individuals- individuals who were producing subjectivities and identities through the practices of consumption.

Heather Law is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s interested in exploring Native American engagement of the capitalist colonial project through historical archaeology. She is currently working in New England, researching Native craftswomen of the 18th and 19th centuries.


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