Photography and Archive
I’m interested in Photomonitor to promote artists working in the UK and Ireland to readers online and those living in other territories. It’s really about what gets shown here and for people working here to have a version of a gallery. Photomonitor features exhibition reviews, features, interviews -everything is accessible free online.
I started this exercise by typing ‘archive’ into the search box in Photomonitor and “art being interested in the idea of an archive” and I shocked myself how many times it came up just in Photomonitor. It is such an enormous topic but I’d like to talk about few artists who have been pointing to clearly open-ended questions. I’m interested in looking at the outputs on gallery walls, in the books and things I’m used to seeing in an art context; that’s along the spectrum from fine art to document and where will this sit in the future. I’m interested in the next steps having seen the beginnings, in the physical aspect of an archive as well as the interpretation.
I want to touch on few examples, probably quite familiar, of what is very popular in photography at the moment, starting with found imagery that doesn’t have a context, where the artist and the viewer create the context, Erik Kassels’ book In Almost Every Picture, (Vol 1), which is I believe sold out.
This book is about an anonymous Spanish woman. He happened upon some images in a Barcelona flea market. She is in almost every picture. Having bought them he wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. It is something that took him years and years to try to figure out. He wanted to figure out who the person was, he made a poster of this anonymous woman asking her to come to the gallery, a stunt that was picked up and covered in many newspapers and other places.
In his own words: A couple of weeks later, an older woman visited the gallery and said she knew the woman. It turned out that they worked together in a telephone company, and for the first time we had a name: Josefina Iglesias. She’d died years ago, but still that completed the circle, suddenly she wasn’t so abstract but an actual concrete person.
This search and his approach to this project captured the art world and the book sold out, so it’s a vehicle to project your own thoughts into it.
He also said: With most of the books, I try to find a link, a way to trace the story back to its protagonists, to find the people we spend so much time looking at. That’s why the back of every book contains a message that if these photos belong to you, they will be returned.
There is this idea here, that if ‘it’ is anonymous, there is a search, one wants to find out something, and this is an idea that engages us universally.
My next example is very different. Geoff Charles is a Welsh photographer. The accumulation of his life’s work in press and magazine photography industry extends over 120,000 negatives. It is a very well documented archive and a deep representation of place. It is Wales, it is press and magazine photography, over 50 years of quite specific events documenting work and play, rural, urban and village settings: the character of the time and the place.
This is the picture that was on show recently at the Diffusion Festival of Photography in Cardiff. It was part of an intervention and a curatorial interrogation by two curators who went to “unpack the archive” and let their search to be grouped around thematic classifications. They found themes such as masculinity, landscape, religion, animal-human relations, labour: all the things that might connect to Wales. They let the images come together in groupings; they would intervene now and again pulling some images representing these themes from the archive because it is so vast, into a more artistic context. There is a longer interview about this on Photomonitor with Peter Finnemore and Russell Roberts, the two curators involved in this project.
Something a bit different: Nicolai Howalt went into a medical archive of Dr Niels Finsen in Copenhagen. He researched and experimented with medicinal applications of light in the 19th century, In particular, working with light as a healing force of skin diseases. These are quite horrific photographic images of patients before and after his treatments, this is not only because of the medical conditions or particular disfigurements but also the lenses that he used. The archive is not only photographic but contains also medical documents and the tools that were used to distil the light into something beneficial.
Being interested purely in the experiments with light and how in the present day we think about it, Nicolai Howalt went back and reproduced beautiful in the photograph viewing process, carefully reanimated old images in a contemporary way to make very beautiful prints. He used glass lenses to take images of light today, using the tools almost like another reanimation of the archive physically. This was recently on show in the Edel Assanti Gallery in London.
The next duo probably doesn’t need very much introduction: Broomberg and Chanarin. I won’t talk about the show that was at the Photographers’ Gallery recently, but this one, from Belfast Exposed archive I thought might be a relevant question mark for the future of Lebanese Archive project.
People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground series involved looking at photographs where archivists in Belfast put little dots: they are red, yellow or blue, according to what they hoped they were going to signify.
If someone is not familiar with Belfast Exposed, it was founded in 1983 as a response to concerns over the careful control of images depicting British military activity during the Troubles. It is a purely Irish archive.
The intervention by Broomberg and Chanarin involved looking under the little dots on images to see what kind of narrative was hidden and what the archivists’ application of these dots had covered. They are sometimes playful, sometimes anonymous again, sometimes troubling. It was something that uncovered what wasn’t there and now lives on as an artwork, a book and individual prints costing thousands of pounds. It is an interesting exercise to think about of what can happen to archival prints.
The next one is part of work in progress by an artist Regine Petersen. Her series Find a Falling Star has had its first chapter published as Stars Fell on Alabama.
Petersen was interested in meteorites. In particular, there was this story of the Hodges meteorite, which fell in Alabama, late in the 1950s. It was the story of the times: of race, of class, of everything: family history, memory, place. Since 2009 Petersen has been going back, tracing where this happened, touching on slavery, colonialism, human relationships. Her project is about making a story of something that happened and this particular artist does it with her contemporary images of the place and the people and reworking of the documents that remain. It is a weaving of a web of a story that will continue. She next goes to India and chases another meteorite and I think she has lots of other meteorites to chase.
The next example I want to share with you is an exhibition of Marjolaine Ryley. There is now a review on Photomonitor of her most recent book Growing Up In The New Age and this is an image from an exhibition of work that is that book.
This archive is her own personal experience as a child growing up in ‘the counterculture’, in communes in the South of France, squatting in South London, ‘free school’ education, loads of ‘New Age’ things. She had memories that she found in some Black & White photos of the time when she stumbled upon an archive and then she went to revisit her childhood, a bit of an Alice in Wonderland situation.
You will probably get goose bumps if you go and see it too, because having never lived in a squat or a commune, it is still quite universally touching work about the freedom of the childhood that is wonderful to see in anonymous archival works anywhere. It is something that I think should be explored further in terms of what happens when children grow up to adults and they look back. I’m fascinated by it.
This next image, by Raqus Media Collective, was on show in Photographers’ Gallery about a year ago. It is from 2011, a still from a video projection of an animated archival photograph. It is by James Waterhouse. He took it in Calcutta in 1911 and it was entitled Examining Room of the Duffin Section of the Photographic Department of the Survey of India. You can imagine what is going on here, the colonial surveying, him teaching Indian photographers how to survey along the British standards. This was an archive photo of photographers and cartographers at work.
It is quite interesting that a 100 years later Raqs Media Collective have reanimated this. In this case, it was a video loop of the fan slowly rotating, the colours were quite vibrant, the blue had been heightened and looked quite unnatural; it was very still except for this fan and I think they were few rustling papers, so almost ghostly.
This next work is by Taryn Simon, also shown in London about a year ago. It is from The Picture Collection, which is a series of forty-four works inspired by the New York Public Library’s picture archive but it is one of the institution’s lesser-known things.
It contains 1.2 million prints, postcards, posters, and printed images, which have been cut out by people working in the library over many years from secondary sources such as books and magazines. It is the largest circulating picture library in the world, a complex cataloguing system of over 12,000 subject headings. It has been a very important resource for people like writers, historians, artists, filmmakers, fashion designers, and advertising agencies. Diego Rivera made use of it for his mural for the Rockefeller Center and in the way it probably shaped many views of America. It’s a personal selection of images dating back to 1915. I’m going to leave you with one open-end question here: the power of the archive.