Some different ways of using an Archive – Photo Oxford, part 2

Val Williams On The Practice of Reconceptualising Photographic Archives

The afternoon was set out as a series of presentations on different ways in which the Archive has been utilised by curators/photographer, etc. First up was Val Williams, a writer, curator and academic. She showed a series which she had found on the internet, called the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow, which is wildly eccentric and very funny. It is a band, who write songs to accompany offbeat holiday slides from the 1970s which they project onto a wall while they are playing. Her point was that these songs and images embodied the idea of loss through the archive, while manipulating and making stories about what we see, with no direct link to the intentions of the original photographers. She also talked about the role of the archivist – to protect and collect – and how as time goes on the archive tends to take on some of the identity of the collector. With reference to how it can be used, she argued that one needed to use common sense and morality when making decisions about how the Archive is used, and in particular what is an acceptable appropriation and reinterpretation.

She finished by asking the audience to think about their own family archives, and what elements of family history they wanted to keep for posterity. Leaving stuff behind (after death) is a dangerous concept, as anyone could use the images for their own purposes. She also asked us to consider whether it matters if an archive is real or invented.

References she mentioned included:

In Conversation: Taco Hidde Bakker discusses Taking Off. Henry, My Neighbor with artist Mariken Wessels

This project was a collaboration between Wessels, the photographer and Bakkeras, the background researcher and marketer. Wessels explained that she had previously been an actress and used this ability to create a person onstage in her obsession with Henry; she used what was available but also made bits up herself if what she wanted was not there. The main part of the archive came as a pack of images and stories from a friend, who was next door neighbour to Henry and his wife Martha in the 1980s. the 5000+ images were taken by Henry of Martha in various states of undress, and the sheer number of them, his accompanying notes about her poses and the relatively short period of time they covered indicate that Henry was completely obsessed with his project. Wessels was interested in both this obsession, but also Martha’s ordinariness, and the record of what started as a bit of fun, but over time became a drag and then a loathed requirement of Martha’s marriage. Wessels makes up a story about Martha finally throwing all the photographs out of the window and running away, thus taking back control. There are many layers to consider in this work, including Henry as the neighbour you see but do know, the use of private material without explicit permission for a public exhibition (nobody knows where either Henry or Martha a re now to ask them) the suffocating nature of the installation experience, in which the images are crowded together on all the walls, and the difficulty in assessing what is real about the archive and what was fabricated. In fact, I have a niggling doubt about whether any of it was original, and whether the whole project was made up by Wessels.

In Conversation: Curators Tim Clark and Greg Hobson discuss the Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive with its owners, FUEL (Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell)

This was a fascinating talk. Murray & Sorrell had first heard about the tattoos via drawings made by a prison guard in St. Petersburg prison. Then they came across another archive by a policeman and newspaper photographer Sergey Vasilev, who had encouraged prisoners to sit for him in exchange for a print, in the late 1980s. Quite apart from the aesthetics of the images, the tattoos themselves are a language, which Vasilev uncovered while trying to understand what motivated the prisoners to do them. He discovered that they were symbolic at a number of different levels. Some tattoos were mementos of stays in various prisons and some were gang related, but he also discovered that the more complex the tattoo, the higher the status of the inmate within the prison hierarchy, and its location on the body meant different things depending on where it was. They were applied (all illegally) as decoration, but also as punishment (a form of bodily abuse). Common themes included churches (the number of domes indicated the prisoner’s incarcerations), the Madonna and child and SS symbols, but the meanings were not the same was we think of them.  At the end of the communist movement, the concept faded out and so this archive is a piece of Russian alternative history as well as a series of typological portraits. The speakers also pointed ou that the tattoos and their language eclipsed both nudity (prisoners were happy to display their tattoos in private parts of their body) and also their individuality (the tattoos said more about who they were than how they fitted into the prison hierarchy than they did themselves.

AS a result of all this, I decided to find a proper definition of the archive and came across this explanation What Is An Archives? from the Society of American Archivists, which seems to provide a good explanation, but also asks us to consider how we might want to look at our own family archives as potentially interesting primary sources. Something to pursue in Digital Image and &Culture.

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4 thoughts on “Some different ways of using an Archive – Photo Oxford, part 2

  1. anomiepete

    One of the most interesting I’ve seen is Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel. Its a book of photos taken by a commercial photographer in the USA. Its interesting for the choices, omissions and the way many of the images provide an unwitting testimony about the time/place eg race and gender relations and roles.

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