After attending the OCA Photography Hangout last night, which was discussing Allan Sekula’s essay, ‘Reading an Archive: Photography between Labour and Capital‘, I looked back at the notes I’d taken at Photo Oxford in September, and realised there was considerable cross-over. So this is a post about both Sekula’s work and the Photo Oxford seminar.
Sekula’s Reading an Archive
Sekula’s essay Reading the Archive can be found as Chapter 42 of Wells (2003) The Photography Reader. It is a densely argued piece, which considers the political aspects of photography in some detail. He argues that all photographs potentially have a political angle which is frequently not acknowledged or even denied either at the time of making, or by later viewers. For example, Leslie Sheddon’s archive of commercial photographs from Cape Breton in the mid 20th century shows different strata of the local society when viewed now, although it might not have been directly considered at the time.
Sekula also considers the Archive, that ‘collection of primary materials waiting for someone to make connections between different elements within it’ (my definition). It cannot ever be complete, because it is amorphous, and constantly open both to new materials, but also to new interpretations of the material. It can never be fully understood.
Archives constitute a ‘territory of images‘, i.e. those sources which belong to the person or institution who owns them, and who may buy and sell parts of it. However, ownership has little to do with the meaning of the work, which is produced by the researcher who picks and chooses the elements s/he wasn’t to compare, with the aim of telling a particular story (authorship). It is important to note though that the story is entirely dependent on the interpretation imposed by the researcher, and that there are a multiplicity of potential stories, with many different possible meanings, which can be gleaned from the archive. (abstract visual equivalence) This means that the politics and experience of the researcher will inevitably affect the outcome of that research, but also the politics and experience of the final viewer. There is no objectivity here; everything is subjective.
Sekula goes on to discuss how history is often dependent on pictures made at the time (whether they be paintings or photographs), and that these are frequently imbued with an aura of ‘truthfulness’ which when unpacked proves to be illusory. For example, an image of an Edwardian country lady with her family and servants has several potential histories depending on whose point of view you are considering it. What is civilisation to one person is barbarism to the next, always.
Moving on to the discussion we had at the Hangout, the following points came up:
- once an image is accepted into the Archive, it loses its original meaning
- we considered how one might research the archive and where to start – chronological, thematic etc.
- once it has become disconnected from its original home, an image becomes untethered, waiting for a meaning to be imposed upon it.
- so many old family photos become meaningless when the people within them die, as nobody then knows the stories and whom they describe
- the Archive is not ‘truth’
- in theory, photography could be a ‘universal language’ but its context is always affected by cultural assumptions
- use of photographs as spectacle – an interpretation of history. History is as interpretive as art or photography
- Moving on to how one uses images after they have been released into the internet, perfectly innocent images can have meanings attached to them that were never originally intended, e.g. the H&M advert. There is no control by the original maker
- potential of typologies to be used for nefarious purposes, such as eugenics.
The more I learn about The Archive, the more interesting it becomes. It can be used and interpreted in so many different ways, with the connection to the original maker being very close or wildly different. My next post will look at some of the exhibits at Photo Oxford with this in mind.
Sekula, Allan (2003) ‘Reading an archive; Photography Between Labour and Capital’ In Wells, Liz (ed.) The Photography Reader. Abingdon: Routledge. Also available at : https://monoskop.org/images/7/74/Sekula_Allan_1983_2003_Reading_an_Archive.pdf (Accessed on 12.01.2018)