Assembling Ruin: Rubble Photography of the 1908 Messina Earthquake

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Photographs of the 1906 San Francisco and 1908 Messina earthquakes can be understood in terms of changing media and modes of reportage. Collections of the disaster photographs have supported the emerging science of seismology, social criticism and forms of popular entertainment. Images of facade-shorn buildings and collapsed houses reproduced and assembled for period newspapers, scientific reports, illustrated journal issues and tourist postcards, ostensibly revealed events as they had happened in real time to audiences worldwide. Circulation of the images allowed them to be received as an accurate and harrowing record for public comment, disaster relief and reconstruction planning. However, behind the illusion of objectivity lies a domain of unknown, possibly unknowable but suspected facts concerning the nature of earthquakes and about the relative exposure of cities, races and more or less civilized nations to likely devastation.

Forming a subset of disaster photography, rubble photography (Trümmerfotografie) is a genre commonly composed of images depicting bombed and burned-out cities like Dresden and Cologne. It is cited when theorizing the contribution of such images to the politics of collective memory connected to Germany’s reconstruction and eventual reunification after the Second World War. This paper proposes to extend the genealogy of the genre to include photographs of the San Francisco and Messina earthquake. It pays particular attention to images of the latter disaster, all the while emphasizing the genre’s contribution to shaping urban imaginaries.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
Issue number28
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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