Following a recent conference paper, Annebella Pollen reflects on the ways that photography and textiles have intersected in her research and in her personal life.

On Thursday 3rd March 2022, I should have been in Chicago, at the 110th CAA Annual Conference. The College Arts Association is the world’s largest art history conference, with around 300 panels per event, and is the central focal point for art history and visual studies in the USA. I’ve never been to CAA, and I’ve never been to Chicago, so I was very much looking forward to the new experience. Covid intervened, however, and the conference became virtual. I presented from my laptop at home with a punishing time difference: my slot was at 11.30pm GMT.

The panel of which I was part, Picturing Fabrics: Textile and the Photographic Image, was co-organised by Sandrine Colard and Giulia Paoletti, two Assistant Professors of Art at Rutgers University and University of Virginia, respectively. The organisers asked: “Is there a world history of photography to be written from the point of view of the medium’s relation to textile, as medium, surface, aesthetic and haptic perception? What are the shared properties of both media, and how have they influenced each other?” These questions excited me as I have long had an interest in textiles and photography as two areas of study; rarely do they intersect.

In my own research journey, I have sometimes moved from one area to another – my BA dissertation, for example, was on a dress and textiles topic, but was undertaken in a Visual Culture programme; my MA dissertation was on a photography topic, but in a History of Design and Material Culture frame. Often I have tried to bring seeing and touching together: my approach to photography has always been to consider it in object terms. When, in 2004, I discovered the work of Elizabeth Edwards, the visual anthropologist who has done most to advance a theoretical understanding of photography’s materiality, I knew I wanted her to be my PhD supervisor so I could continue to think with photographs as things, and I was lucky enough to be under her supervision at University of the Arts, London, from 2006-10.

The presentation that I made as part of the 2022 CAA panel was entitled “Unravelling and Time-Travelling: Media Archaeologies of the Embroidered Photograph”. I examined how the stitched photographs of contemporary art practice – as seen in the work, for example, of Julie Cockburn (UK) and Joana Choumali (Cote d’Ivoire) – might have historical precursors in a less culturally consecrated form: the embroidered postcards produced and sent by the million from the turn of the century until at least the 1980s across Northern Europe. My “media archaeology” proposition suggested that by bringing stitched contemporary photographic art to bear on historical visual materials – and vice versa – an illuminating transfer of meaning might be achieved over time, and ultimately that new insights might be generated on photographs and textiles as forms with shared affordances.

The historic postcards that I discussed all came from my own collection. I have been accumulating these cards for a long time and the stories attached to them take me on some personal journeys. I recall seeing embroidered postcards first as a child. My parents were strict Catholics, and we went on two international holidays in the early 1980s: one to the Marian apparition site of Lourdes, France, and the other to Rome to see the Pope. In both cases, I was enormously enthusiastic about the souvenir shops, and I bought a Saint Bernadette snowstorm and a pen where the Virgin Mary travelled in a bubble of water up and down the casing. In Rome, there were further opportunities to buy religious merchandise. I saw more of the Sistine Chapel through a plastic stereoscopic Viewmaster than I did in person, and I bought a lenticular postcard of the Turin Shroud that revealed the face of Jesus with a tilt of the hand. It was in these shops that I first saw embroidered postcards; they were part devotional, part decorative, and I loved the way that they looked and felt. The pleasures also came close to home; when I was ten years old my father opened his own Catholic book and gift shop, ten minutes’ walk from our house.

Image of three embroidered postcards, two depict an image of the Pope and the third depicts Saint Bernadette

Embroidered postcards produced in Spain for Italian and French markets. Left, pre-1963; middle, 1968; right n.d. (c.1980s). Collection of Annebella Pollen.

For many people in the UK, their first encounter with embroidered postcards came through the cards produced for the souvenir market taking cheap holidays in southern Spain. Flamenco postcards were produced in huge abundance from the 1960s, and their photographic surfaces were enhanced with machine-stitched bodices and frilled skirts for the female dancers. My brother moved to Seville in the 1990s to live with his Spanish girlfriend. Whenever I went to visit him, I would buy these cards, still on regular sale. In 2011, my flamenco cards were included in a Brighton Basement exhibition, entitled Keepers, about local collectors; I dressed as a card for the occasion.

Image of three embroidered postcards of Flamenco dancers

Flamenco postcards, produced in Spain, c.1960s. Collection of Annebella Pollen.

These kinds of popular materials have been dismissed as kitsch, but I’ve always felt they had more cultural value. Postcards, and greetings cards more generally, as popular ephemera, are frequently disparaged as “disposable imprints of mass-produced sentiment”, as the author Barry Shanks put it. I’ve invested research time in scrutinising such objects, however, and have published academic articles on postcards, as well as taking part in postcard conferences and being interviewed on postcard podcasts. Meanwhile, I have developed parallel publications on dress history and photography history, and sometimes brought the two together. For example, in 2013 I was invited to write the catalogue essay for an exhibition at Rugby Museum and Art Gallery, curated by the artist Marlene Little, entitled Beyond Surface and Material: The Meeting Point between Photography and Textiles, and I have more recently written on photography topics for Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture. In a very lateral way, my latest book, Nudism in a Cold Climate: The Visual Culture of Naturism in Mid-20th-Century Britain is as much about dress (or undress) as it is about photography. “Textiles”, amusingly, is also the name that nudists give to non-nudists.

In the CAA panel, I spoke about the intersection of photographs and textiles in embroidered art and postcards, and I considered them in the frame of emotional and sensual aspects of looking, such as “feeling photography” by Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu, and “tactile looking” by Margaret Olin. The other speakers had fascinating and fresh perspectives on the material properties of photographs on a microscopic level (Juliana Robles de la Pava), the early photographic cyanotypes of lace by Julia Herschel and Anna Atkins (Beth Saunders), the wampum frames of photographs taken by indigenous American artist Shelley Niro (Claire Millikin Raymond) and the dressed black bodies of sitters assembled by mid-19th-century African American portrait photographer Thomas E. Askew and his seamstress wife, Mary (Kimberly Kay Lamm). The presenters and their subjects took in a wide geographical area and diverse world views. I travelled with them to explore these world histories. The opportunity to bring my work to the panel helped me revisit some personal and academic journeys of my own, even if I didn’t get to go to Chicago.