Photographs as preservation: Reconstructing memory through creative destruction
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Historic preservation efforts reveal contemporary values, rather than maintaining those of the past. Societies choose to "creatively destroy" aspects of their own history by selecting some buildings for demolition, and others for preservation. As Lasansky argues (2004), preservation efforts are used as a mechanism for celebrating certain ideas over others, often with political gains or national movements in mind. In this way, each preserved structure represents a choice to reconstruct the currently existing notion of that time. These choices reveal the collective search for a contemporary identity, which is rooted in the creation of selective memory. Photographs serve as windows into the motivations of these efforts. As Woods argues (2009), the aesthetic choices made in the act of architectural photography, such as the inclusion/exclusion of certain settings, subjects and structures, reveal the very nature of selection that informs the construction of memory. She writes, "We seem to look through photographs, rather than at them," (xvii) indicating that urban historians examine scenes from the past through photographs, but rarely account for the photographer's subjectivity in framing the scene. This discussion runs parallel to Lasansky's work, and both scholars address the construction of urban memory: Woods through photography, and Lasansky through historic preservation. This thesis seeks to combine those notions, examining photography as a mode of preservation that aesthetically reveals the contemporary values embedded in the act of preservation itself. The Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo , a relatively unexamined collection of photographs, was created in 1912 in order to document buildings condemned to demolition during Buffalo's industrial era. The subjective choices to feature Gothic and Italianate architecture, picturesque waterfront views and pastoral landscapes, emphasizing their pre-industrial characteristics, reveal a cultural reaction to the emerging technological age. When combined with specific historical site research, and a literature review surrounding these discussions, this body of work can serve as a case study that reveals the role of the visual components of these photographs in the evolution of a local memory. Just as the camera lens is adjusted to frame the scene, the scene itself is adjusted to emphasize the values of the culture seeking to "preserve" it through photography. The Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo exemplifies this intersection between photography and historic preservation, and can thus be analyzed, within a broader academic context, in order to contribute to this academic discourse and to the history of Buffalo. This thesis will include an examination of a collection of historic photographs, entitled Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo , as an example of the influence that historic preservation efforts can have on a local community. If acts of preservation represent current values, then The Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo could serve as an archive of inspiration for preserving the value of Buffalo's present community. These photographs powerfully communicate the spirit of Buffalo's early preservation efforts, which could animate current efforts into a powerful, collective act of preservation. By bringing these unmined photographs to light, it will be possible to not only examine the role of photographic preservation efforts in creating a selective memory, but also inspire current revitalization efforts to foster a unified local identity that is rooted in a common history.