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Digital Photographic Grammar

Mapping Documentary Photographs

Frank Mehring

Pages 231 - 252


In this essay, I argue that the cultural legacy of the European Recovery Program has not yet been grasped: a visual matrix that was designed to translate, mediate, and communicate abstract political and economic concepts as easily understandable narratives. Transnational studies have long emphasized processes of mediation, migration, hybridization, and circulation as key elements of international and transcultural encounters and confrontations. DH provides us with new tools and methods to put the processes of dissemination, circulation, and mediation at the center of our work on transnationalism. One of the innovative opportunities that text and image mining offer concerns semi-automatic and computer-assisted searches and filters. This aspect is particularly useful in addressing issues related to the circulation and distribution of images in national and international media such as newspapers, magazines, or books and can then lead the researcher to explore more refined computational research methods and questions. Tracing the circulation of images and identifying its photographic grammar helps us to better understand the pace of changes in the United States and Europe, and to map systematically the transformative power of the U.S. recovery program on a regional, national, and transnational level. How can we move from a practical digital revolution to a new way of thinking about and creatively engaging with material, charts, clusters, patterns or maps generated or distilled via digital algorithms? In this article, I argue for a systematic outline of a photographic grammar that can be applied to documentary photographic archives in the twentieth century. After discussing the combination of photographic grammar and rhetoric as well as photographic grammar and mapping, I will outline a systematic approach to address the opportunities, challenges, and shortcomings of a semiautomatic digital search that investigates the dissemination of photographs. As photographic grammar and the semi-automatic clustering of the Marshall Plan’s visual rhetoric will show, one lesson that needs to be re-learned when we talk about a United States of Europe or a new Marshall Plan for Africa or Europe is that it was not only the economic dimension that turned the Marshall Plan into a commonplace myth of success but also the visual narrative that provided its cultural script.


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