Tag Archives: archive

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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All sorts of stuff relating to the archive

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.

References

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)

A few notes on follow up research

A fellow student, Stephanie referred me recently to a paper on the archive which was an interesting overview of the questions I had been considering at the end of Context & Narrative. It is a surprisingly fascinating read, and the link is attached below.

 Some scholars have argued that the archive functions for the humanities and social science disciplines as the laboratory functions for the sciences. Both the archive and the laboratory are sites of knowledge production.(27) Pushing this analogy further, sociologist Thomas Osborne proposes that we think of the archive as a “centre of interpretation,” similar to “courts of law, psychotherapeutic encounters and departments of the humanities.”(28)

As Hayden White has forcefully argued, transforming archival data into historical narrative is a subjective act.(43) The writing of history always requires the intervention of a human interpreter. Moreover, according to Michael Lynch, “the archive is never ‘raw’ or ‘primary,’” because it is always assembled so as to lead later investigators in a particular direction.(44) Because there is never sufficient archival material, Carolyn Steedman goes so far as to declare that the historian’s craft involves the ability to “conjure a social system from a nutmeg grater.”(45) For these reasons, Steadman contends that “historians read for what is not there: the silences and the absences of the documents always speak to us.”(46)  (Manoff, 2004)

Secondly, I watched Rachel Smith’s lecture on The Materiality of Images, from the recent OCA Photography Symposium, held in Doncaster. It was a highly academic deconstruction of whether and how analogue images differ from physical photos, and what these differences might be. Given that I am currently interested in the concept of the physical photograph and how it can be altered to add meaning, this lecture is of great interest to me. Smith’s work is very much at the academic end of photographic study, and a look at her web page shows that her work is cross-media. She is interested in the idea of materiality in all sorts of arts media. I will keep this lecture in mind to inform my own work, which is more at the creative end of the spectrum.

References

Manoff, Marlene. (2004) ‘Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines.’ In: Libraries and the Academy,  4 (1), pp. 9–25. [online] At: http://uwf.edu/dearle/capstone/manoff.pdf (accessed on 26 May 2016)