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Wednesday, January 1, 2020

"Working with Archives"

Happy New Year, you scurvy lot!

In recent years it has become quite the thing for photographers to go off and work with archives by which they mean, root around in archives and photograph some of the objects and documents in the archive.

This is perfectly OK, photograph whatever you like. As a way to tell us about something it's, though, it has... certain limitations.

If you photograph your grandfather's dog tags, medals, and unit insignia, you are not photographing World War II. You are photographing your grandfather's junk drawer. This is not a cute, oblique, artistic side channel in to WWII that reveals new insights. It's just grandpa's stuff. As such it may have something to say about grandpa, and it may have a lot to say about grandpa's junk drawer.

The point about an archive is that is is, in general, a large mass of Stuff that's associated with something that someone thought was worth preserving. An event, a place, a person, an era. An archive is a whole. If you pull 2 or 3 or 50 objects out of it, those things are not what the archive is about. They do not, and cannot, represent the archive's subject. If they could, the archivist wouldn't have bothered with the other 1000 or 10,0000 or 100,000 objects in the archive.

The traditional, and arguably correct, way to deal with an archive is to sift through the whole thing, or at least most of it. You then form thoughts and opinions about the subject of the archive, that place, person, event. After noodling on those thoughts for a decent interval, you then record them. Using words, because that's the tool we have for thoughts. A few photos might not be amiss here, but the majority of the output is thoughts and ideas, which we represent with the medium of language.

By photographing objects and documents in the archive and stopping there, the photographer sidesteps the entire subject of the archive. The result is, at best, about the archive itself. At worst, it's merely evidence that the photographer went there and rooted around, evidence of labor. You don't get a degree in chemistry merely by stirring a great deal, and I don't give a damn how many archives you visited.

The most telling detail here is this: the present tic is always to photograph documents. You can see the wrinkles, the texture of the paper, the slight shadow it casts. The resulting visual is therefore one of a piece of paper with markings on it, the content of the markings is secondary. If the artist were interested in the content, the appropriate mode would be to reproduce the document, or even to transcribe it. But no, the chic thing is the photograph of it.

Photographs of documents reify the document, not the content of the document.

I am convinced that most of the photographers taking these photos have no real notion of this, they are simply following contemporary trends. They are "doing a project" on some topic, and so they find a heap of material on that topic and photograph a handful of documents and objects that struck their fancy, and they declare victory. I have worked with that archive! Next? By photographing instead of writing, you avoid that whole pesky business of essay structure comma adhering to, you can simply pick out the best pictures, whichever those are, and chuck them in to your inevitable book dummy.

This method can be great if you want to tell me about the archive itself, or about the archivist, and that can be very interesting. One can represent Paris, or at any rate a particular take on Paris, with a handful of photos of that city; but one cannot meaningfully attack French History so. In the same way, you can reveal something of W.H. Auden's papers with pictures of them, but you cannot tell me much about Auden himself.

1 comment:

  1. "most of the photographers taking these photos have no real notion of this, they are simply following contemporary trends"

    - evergreen observation