Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2019-2020 (archived)

Module MELA53730: Theorising History and Historicising Theory: An Introduction to Photographic Studies

Department: Modern Languages and Cultures

MELA53730: Theorising History and Historicising Theory: An Introduction to Photographic Studies

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Not available in 2019/20 Module Cap


  • None


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • To introduce students to the central questions in the study of photography, examining the way in which theorists have addressed the history of photography and the history of that theory itself.


  • The module will consist of weekly seminars arranged in three thematic sections, as follows:
  • Mondernity/postmodernity: This section will map the changes in the status of photographic representation within culture from the early twentieth century to the early twenty-first century. Focussing on the work of Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord, and William J Mitchell, it will explore the functioning of photography in terms of technological and social change, from the early days of image-based culture in the 1920s to the digital media of today.
  • Documentary/photojournalism: Because of its perceived privileged status as a technology of representation that gives unmediated access to the real, photography has been a powerful tool in the hands of the news media and documentary photographers. This section focuses on the aesthetic and epistemological assumptions underpinning documentary and photo journalism, whilst also examining the ideological implications of these assumptions.
  • Achive and Ethnography: From its inception, photograhy has served both honorific and repressive functions. Concentration on the latter, this section looks at the use of photography to construct typologies of criminality, social deviance, mental pathology and race. Reading will include the work of Elizabeth Edwards, John Tagg, and Allen Sekula.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Students will have acquired an understanding of the trends and debates shaping the study of the photographic image from the early twentieth century to the present day; and of the key theoretical paradigms required for critical analysis of the photographic image.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Students will be able to engage with and critically assess the key theoretical paradigms which have emerged in relation to the photographic image.
Key Skills:
  • Students will have developed proficiency in the critical analysis and assessment of theoretical frameworks and models which can be brought to bear on an object of study.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Students will follow a rigorous programme of reading that includes many of the seminal documents of photographic theory. All texts will be studied in English. Students will prepare a specific tasks and questions in advance of each seminar, and will be required to give occasional presentations.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 9 Weekly 2 Hours 18
Preparation & Reading 282
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 5000 words 100%

Formative Assessment:

One book review of 1000 words One essay of 2500 words

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University