Photographers Build Their Cameras: Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, and the U.S. Patent Record - Colloquium | History of Art and Architecture | University of Pittsburgh
History of Art and Architecture

Photographers Build Their Cameras: Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, and the U.S. Patent Record - Colloquium

Wednesday, March 31, 2021 - 12:00pm to 1:00pm

Speaker: Maria-del-Carmen Barrios-Giordano

The role and function of the United States patent record is vastly understudied in the history of photography. This is likely due to histories of photographic technology being perceived in the field as flatly teleological, and of little interest to social historians of photography. This paper proposes that on the contrary, mining the patent record provides a new interpretive method for the social history of photography in mid-twentieth century America. 

Among the many photographers to have left their trace in the patent record are the venerable American photographers Berenice Abbott and Ansel Adams. Abbott’s presence in the record is reflected in patents for original inventions in photographic equipment, whereas Adams’ work is present through his famed Zone System. As a method by which to determine a photograph’s most desirable exposure, it is referenced in dozens of patents, often as a means for the calibration of photographic equipment or digital imaging processing. Meanwhile, Abbott’s patents—awarded through sustained legal efforts to safeguard her intellectual property—have few citations, and her ideas about the aesthetic qualities of photographs seem to have had a lesser impact on technological innovations.

The present paper identifies the patent record as an important, living archive of the influence and agency of some photographers on technological development, to which they have contributed through their aesthetic and political ideas about the ontology of photographs themselves. Noting differences of class, gender, and professional networks, the case studies illustrate the lasting and the ephemeral in American photographers’ contributions to photographic history.

Maria-del-Carmen will use this colloquium to rehearse a virtual paper presentation for the upcoming annual meeting of the Association for Art History, in a session entitled The Laws That Bind Us. She will be speaking about how she is using the framework of social constructivism from the history of technology to frame her research on Abbott at MIT and the NYPL, and Adams in the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office). Suggestions, comments, and tips about presenting papers at virtual conferences especially welcome!

Zoom password available on HAA Undergraduate and Graduate Canvas sites, or by request from

Image: The Aspen Conference, 1951. Abbott, seated center right and Adams, seated second from left. Photograph by Ferenc Berko, courtesy Aperture.