5. Archives forever (On History, Two)
Published: 28.02.2014
in the series François Brunet
Previous Next
Our recent discussions on this blog have set me thinking about the notion of archives in photography. My personal and professional concern is primarily with historical uses of photographic and other archives, but I want to consider these uses from the vantage point of today, i.e. the vocabulary and the concerns of the digital era, which is characterized by perhaps unprecedented “archive fever” (Derrida, as quoted recently by Nils Plath on this blog) or archive fervor, but also by deep ambiguities and problems in the very notion of “archive/s.” Indeed the word “archive/s” (I will come back to the singular/plural hesitation) has perhaps never been so current as today. In the digital age, virtually everyone uses a vast number of online services that, whether or not they call themselves archives, perform various functions that are loosely called archiving (whether dealing with images or other types of data). Archiving has perhaps been a typical byproduct of the consumer age, but computing has made its use more universal and common. Virtually everyone who photographs (and everyone who digitizes images made in paper or film-based media) has to deal with vast amounts of electronic pictorial files, which typically need to be organized, stored for future access, and, in many cases, shared. We all use or can use, for personal purposes, various web-based facilities, enabling all three of these functions and confronting users with basic issues of archiving. And we all experience various frustrations in these operations, ranging from disorientation to the common mishap of misplacement and loss—temporary or permanent—of electronic files, an occurrence that is common enough to generate specific fears and more or less sophisticated methods and strategies for preventing such loss. There are myriads of “how-to” online tools, for instance for recovering deleted pictures. Professional conservation institutions have, of course, long tackled issues of loss, deterioration, etc., and of the preservation and long-term access of digital files, and I do not intend to go into a technical discussion of archival procedures; what I am noting, as a symptom of the contemporary archive fever, is that such institutions today routinely provide what we might call “archiving tips” for the general public. The Library of Congress has a special page on “digital archiving”Here is a web page that reproduces a Smithsonian Institution blog entry about “future-proof[ing] your digital photos” (ironically, the original blog entry is no longer available on the Institution’s own website). Newspapers and other cultural channels regularly share this kind of expertise as well, as the New York Times here. In the Google world, it would seem that everyone is bound to be an archivist, just as everyone is prone to be a researcher. Derrida’s Archive Fever (translated from Mal d’archive: une impression freudienne, 1995), addresses, among other issues, the (archaeological, and foundational in Freudian theory) fear of losing beginnings, the desire to recover them through archives, and the renewed actuality of such fears and desires in the age of electronic communication, though the latter is by no means Derrida’s primary topic (see an excellent discussion of this text from the viewpoint of a practicing archivist). Here I am, logically or inevitably enough, opening a discussion of photography archives with the themes of loss, fear of losing (one’s pictures, one’s memories, one’s beginnings), and “archive fever” as the newest, as well as the oldest, compulsion of (our) civilization trying to counter such loss. That is Derrida’s topic, that is Google’s, Flickr’s, Instagram’s, and other archive-marketing concerns’ topic, and that is also the topic of countless professional and institutional discussions in the digital age. On photo-historians and archivists discussion lists, warnings of archives being lost, destroyed, dispersed, or threatened, are just as common as news of “troves” rediscovered or historic collections digitized. In fact the happy story of rediscovery/digitization/access is often directly coupled with the sad story or prospect of destruction/de-accession/dispersal, as was the case in 2013 with, for instance, the “Barnardo archive” of stray children taken into foster care and photographed in the late 19th century by Dr. Thomas Barnardo in London (as related on Michael Pritchard’s blog; it would appear that since this announcement in July, 2013, a “new home” for the originals will be found). Every day the multiplication of digital or digitized archives lends new credence to the old myth of universal access to universal knowledge of the past, and every day the destruction or reshuffling of archives (including cases of rediscoveries leading to radical modifications of the archival conditions of existence of records) counters this fantasy. The story of archives is, in a sense, the story of photography itself. As all historians of photography know since at least Walter Benjamin (and through him Georg Simmel and Alois Riegl), the “documentary” (we might call it “archiving”) impulse is the primary motive for so many photographic grands projets, monumental rather than documentary in essence, and often linked to processes of transformation/destruction—from François Arago dreaming in 1839 of a photographic recovery of hieroglyphics destroyed by “greed” and “vandalism” to the French Mission Héliographique, from the US-sponsored surveys of Western territories and populations to Edward S. Curtis (see, on Curtis’s ambiguities, Mathilde Arrivé’s recent research), from the French Revolution’s creation of National Archives and other patrimonial organizations to Charles Marville’s and Eugène Atget’s “archiving” of the changing city of Paris (followed in New York by Berenice Abbott), or from August Sander’s Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts to the FSA’s “archive” of the Great Depression. Photography, we might say if we were willing to allow once again such an essentializing substantive, was made to archive us and our (European, Euro-American, Capitalist, etc.) projects and memories of transforming the world. Digital photography only multiplies this foundational paradox, and highlights the important connection of photographic technology in the sense of the 19th century to digital technologies of the 21st. I don’t intend to prolong unduly this post, but I do need to complete the previous remarks in two directions. One set of ideas has to do with another fear of the computer age, which is the Orwellian fear of control, and the particular role of the notion of “archive,” in the singular, in the discourse of this fear. Even as users of Flickr or Picasa create and handle sets of pictures they like to think of as their personal “archives,” and even as web surfers also may revel in exploring the online archives of Life magazine and other such photographic or pictorial “troves,” they also live—increasingly it seems—with the fear of a demon called “the archive,” which looms right there in the cloud world where they store their personal pictures. Though the recent revelations of global surveillance of electronic communications are not primarily focused on images, they do address large processes of monitoring where, as in the war by drones, interception of communications and geolocalization of messages result into procedures of visualization and, ultimately, arraignment or destruction. One’s ordinary archiving of photos on this or that facility does not carry such risks, but nonetheless constantly reminds one of them; and in spite of appearances this fear of the all-controlling archive is not new.  Long before Edward Snowden, the public debate on surveillance has been fueled by a vast literature discussing visual surveillance and “control” of and by images as crucial mechanisms in modern systems of power, and isolating “the archive” (a word, as Derrida reminds us, etymologically linked to arkhê “beginning” and “authority”, arkhein “originate” and “command”, and arkhôn “ancient” and “commander”) as the central operative tool of such mechanisms. The critique of “the archive,” in the singular, as the underlying productive tool of institutional and/or commercial control of citizens (or consumers) derives not only from George Orwell’s 1984 and other dystopian visions of modernity but also from loose readings of Michel Foucault (especially two of his books from the early 1970s, L’Archéologie du savoir, 1969;  and Surveiller et Punir, 1975, which introduced the now unavoidable metaphor of panopticism) and many later texts inspired by French post-structuralism, from Paul Virilio and his La Machine de Vision (1988)  to Alan Sekula (especially in his landmark article “The Body and the Archive,” published in October in 1986 and available on JSTOR and Google Drive; see a creative Prezi presentation of this text by Isabel Neal) and John Tagg’s The Burden of Representation (1988), an important study of 19th-century institutional and “disciplinary” uses of photography and photographic archives. The critique of the archive has been an important political and pedagogical thrust in raising civic awareness of the significance of such apparently “necessary” exercises (or “drills”, in Foucault’s term) as police identification photography, medical and anthropological collections of specimens, or even school pictures and other imageries of institutionally or professionally-sanctioned “communities.” It has also, unfortunately, resulted in propagating selective—indeed biased—understandings of not only the actually diverse semantic functions of such institutional procedures of “archiving” but also of the much larger notion of archives, in the plural. [I am aware that this critique of the archive also has roots and echoes in 20th-century artistic projects that have mimicked the totalizing fantasies of archiving in order to deconstruct them and reconstruct or re-map new (dis-)orders. This line of investigation has been the topic of the French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman’s ongoing investigation of the place of photographs in archives and his defense of the “atlas” form in 20th-century creative and critical thought on images since Aby Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosyne (see especially L’Oeil de l’histoire 3, Atlas ou le Gai Savoir inquiet, and this review). Didi-Huberman’s Benjaminian exploration of the atlas as a dynamic form for undoing and re-doing or “re-mounting” worldviews and accepted lessons of history behind them has been illustrated in the 2011-2012 exhibition ATLAS. How to Carry the World on One's Back? and its sequels (After Atlas and Nouvelles histoires de fantômes). I am, in a sense, only modestly following Didi-Huberman’s lead in voicing here a plea for embracing archives in the plural, and their great promise, as opposed to descrying the power of “the archive.”]

Not all photo archives—far from it—can be described as the products of intentional, directed “archiving” projects understood as purposeful, systematic efforts at “controlling” their subjects, the representations of such “subjects” and the uses of such representations. There exist—because people and institutions amass or simply retain them—countless unclassified, uncontrolled, and unknown archives (collections, piles, groupings of traces, records, documents, and especially photographs, located in family attics, professional warehouses, government agency repositories, and even computers and “cloud” replicas), the majority of which remain at any given time untouched and even unidentified, and which lay as sources for historical research.  Such archives often mix photographs and other documents, though various factors may lead to the separation of pictures from texts. Such archives have no original purpose in and of themselves, except to function informally as markers or building blocks of processed, imagined, created identities, as is typically the case of the family album or shoebox of portraits and snapshots. For this reason, archives are, if I may risk an etymological game, rather anarchistic than “archistic” (a made-up antonym meaning, roughly, governmental). The issues relating to the conservation of digital archives are tremendous, and will become more so, and that is a major question for the future of historical research as well as collective identities. That being said, archives in the plural are, as Derrida also recognized, determined not only by their (past) systems of production and preservation—and certainly archival environments such as labeling, grouping, transmission, etc., are an integral part of their significance, which dispersal or digitization can destroy or obscure—but also by their (future) uses, re-uses, and ever-changing meanings. Historical work and historical innovation depend on a diversity of enquirers forever inventing new archives and renewing their questions to the diversity of archives, and not yielding to the dangerous illusions that photographs (especially as found in commercial-institutional “archives”) are in and of themselves expressions of the past and, more particularly, of past powers. Archives—starting with photographic portraits—are places for reconnoitering the evidence of past (and present) resistances, or, more generally, lives.

16 comment(s)
Nils Plath
Posted 02.03.2014 at 09:44

Again, important perspectives on the subject of the identity of the photographic image (and us), and an impressive amount of far-reaching connections between the practice of archiving and storing, the discovering and handling of the remains and memories of things past and the so-called theoretical thinking about the meaning objects (as such and in pictures) do not cease to have for us. I 'm very impressed. Many questions and comments all of which I see very much leading to the much welcomed final assertion of life as a taking on the form of modes of resistance. Suggestions and queries for sure to be taken along the way when being a flâneur strolling along in front of the illuminated facades of the inner cities, the magnificent museums of the 19th Century, the glass cubes as derivates of the International Style, or when driving by the illuminated gas stations in the outskirts. (Or when looking at them in the coffee table books on display in our living quarters.) As well as reflections on the inside and outside, the interior and exterior that surround us. View points on the archives that make me ask what is where and when being excluded and included from the pool of images that at one time in the future will make up the stock from which history will be reconstructed (the impulses behind much of the archiving activity of pictures being of interest for research, see for instance: http://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/en/research/projects/DeptII_WilderKelley_MIttmanGreg_DocumentingtheWorld). Questions raised about the value, the necessity, and the futility of collecting and storing which will for sure be popping up again during visits to libraries, government agencies, and garage sales all of which are trading posts of knowledge, of people's profiles, and histories of personal belongings, often in the form of pictures and image data. All of the above has so much more to say than just about the representative role of (private) collections and (public) archives for the preservation and inventory of collective memory, and its impact to uphold certain images of culture and civilizations Western style on a global scale under the conditions of 'mondalisation'. The “problems in the very notion of 'archive/s'“ under discussion may also be a given opportunity to reconsider what we all are continuously involved in and negotiate with the help of pictures and images: the much disputed relationship between private and public. Whereby shedding some light on the visual and on the invisibility of relations of power once again (and never for all). This leaves us with much to discuss, considering your words on “archives” (Thanks for the plural!). How are power relations in representations of the private and the public staged, and who owns (and who occupies) what was once designated as (much contested notion of) the public? When do the private images becomes public (domain)? Whose images work for whom? And how can we make sense of these initial questions when coping with the fact that we do continue to walk past the buildings designed to house the visual troves and treasures of the picture past, and yet have no real visuals of the data storages spaces of today and tomorrow. –

Nils Plath
Posted 02.03.2014 at 09:45

In addition, let me extract just one thought from the quoted discussion of Derrida's reflections on the archive here. Because it hits something that seems of central importance: the production of the future. Your wide-ranging reflection on “the archive” in the plural, and our patterns of debate informed by the given technical and political conditions, in my view both attest to this. Derrida asserts, as the quote has it, that “'the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event' (17). Thus archiving technology determines 'the very institution of the archivable event,' (18) informing as well the conception of the future and possibly the future itself.” (see again: http://wsampson.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/from-my-archives-derridas-archive-fever/ ) About this unforeseeable future one thing might be safe to be said: we will be holding on to objects as storage media in some way or the other. Objects and their images, and images as objects, will continue to serve as time capsules. What do we get to see when we look at them? A thing in itself or the material thing? Each photo just multiplies the effects of coming to terms with this question released by semiotics indefinitely (all epistemological doubts addressed to the illusory promise of representational defiance aside). In our material world, furnished with pictures, we constantly read in the fabrics of the visualization of passages of time, internal and external.
It was in this context I had to think of a little photo series: "IN THE SHADOW OF FREUD'S COUCH : Portraits of Psychoanalysts in Their Offices," by Mark Gerald (http://markgeraldphoto.com/#/IN%20THE%20SHADOW%20OF%20FREUD%27S%20COUCH/IN%20THE%20SHADOW%20OF%20FREUD%27S%20COUCH/1). Pictures of interiors where the (person's) inside is made 'visible' via words, pictures of the insides of exterior buildings that talk about the external and internal pressures felt because of the individual being interwoven within the fabrics and economics of time one cannot master in the end. Rooms in which the various individuals in their relationships can be seen as corporal storage entities of images from the past. Living archives. Outspoken witnesses of embodied images, visible and invisible ones. It is well known that the interior of the treatment room, as well as the person of the analyst is to act possible neutral. However, as one can see in the photographs, that is anything but the case. „The subject of the psychoanalyst is fascinating because of its traditional posture of neutrality”, Gerald says about his project: „The analyst and the analytic space, as represented physically by the office, occupy a very private domain. The person and the room have been thought to exist as a blank screen for patients to project their transferences and fantasies upon. The Victorian consulting room of Sigmund Freud, with its oriental rug-draped couch, set a mood and technique that governed psychoanalytic life for much of its first century. Today, psychoanalysts speak not with a single voice or presentation. They are a mosaic of diverse practitioners showing multiple faces in their work. … women and men who, true to Freud, still are the receivers of dreams and dread.“ On view are offices in New York City and vicinity, in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, California, in Cambridge and Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Coral Gables, Florida, Mexico City, London, Paris, Athens, Buenos Aires, and Madrid. Places I for my part immediately try to identify in these pictures of the interiors in order to match them with the images of the locations stored in my heads. Despite being so fundamentally different from each other what is common among all of the offices–private public places they are–is that they give an uncanny presence to the (original) settings in Freud's now defunct consulting room in Hampstead (http://www.freud.org.uk/about/house/). And above all, it is the many many objects, those individual interior decor items seen on the photos, that result in a multifold tissue of narratives in all of the pictures. On each one of them it is these objects framing this private site where the collected individual time is put on display (in very private conversation) that turn these office spaces into showrooms of multiple desires and possibilities, virtual archives of states of mind displayed here.
"It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, absolute to irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for return to the most archaic place of commencement, (91)" Derrida is quoted on his “archive fever.” The many different archival practices described all apparently attest also to a cheerless prospect and something else like a wastefulness, an excess when it comes to time. (Who would not have experienced this sensation when trying to clean up her image data storage, to rearrange his slide collection, or to put loose photos in order after having at one point previously visited an archaeological museum with the comparatively few remaining traces of earlier civilizations on display there... and had to wonder how many of his or her own pictures will survive, last, and remain, and for how long, after one had to invest so much effort and time into storing and archiving them.)

Spend and waste your film material! Go, and shoot the entire role of film when capturing a concert, a poetry reading, the meeting of the neighborhood watch group! That was one of the first lessons I was taught when working as a freelance journalist for a local newspaper, quite some time before the dawn of the digital age. It sounded like a unheard and outrageous imperative at first. At a time while undeveloped pictures from last Christmas and the holidays in the snow were still in my mother's camera when she was already photographing us in short-sleeved outfits in the May sun–thus then returning home from the photo store with prints from the same role of film showing very different seasons; with pictures in hand that saw the light of day simultaneously to be shared and admired showing pictures as instances of asynchrony. Roles of film were expensive, and thus snapshots had a pretty long development time. And had a lasting impact on the perception of temporal images–like today's instant picture production will do for times to come. For the kids of today, those yesteryears must seem as far away and long gone as for me those bygone days when the introduction of instant film was the latest fad (as recounted by Patti Smith in her friendship memoir “Just Kids”, 2010, where she tells what importance working with Polaroid film had for the early photo works of her life companion Robert Mapplethorpe, before his partner Sam Wagstaff gave him his first Hasselblad).

François Brunet
Posted 03.03.2014 at 16:37

Nils, again, this is great, especially the psychoanalysts interiors and your remarks about growing up with the transgressive injunction to "shoot away". And yes, I must once again admit (and apologize?) that I did not address on this blog the issues of the transformation of photography as I thought I would. Every one issue that I raised in my posts stands with a good chance of being radically transformed in years to come. Thank you for consistently bringing this necessary corrective in your responses. I do, however, want to finish by insisting that archives, as I understand them, I mean the best of them, are not about "producing events", are not even primarily about events, and perhaps not even about "objects" or "things". They are masses of scrap, refuse not refused, traces kept to no specific purpose. They have and will have come somehow to historians (those who seek them), and will be their sources. From archives historians build stories, not events nor objects (nothing essential there). The ability for us and for our followers to reinvent stories about our pasts is and will remain one of the fundamental conditions of democracy, freedom, and above all culture. (Emerson: "each age must write its own books"). The existence of archives and especially photographs that, as I think we want to continue to think, always refer perhaps not to a person or a thing or an event but to a moment (of contact) — like all birth and death deeds, and many other archival documents, do also — is the necessary condition for moments from the past to reemerge in our stories, with more or less dialectical power, more or less "burning" of the image in Benjamin's sense. Thanks again, and perhaps we can continue these conversations in the future.

Nils Plath
Posted 02.03.2014 at 09:47

Tagline nostalgia. Tagline representational space. Tagline grasping and capturing: For a few years now, one can find them at almost every corner in some parts of town here: old discarded photo booths that enjoy a return and a new life circle (http://digitalcosmonaut.com/2012/111-places-in-berlin-fotoautomat/). In former times the place to get the officially passport photo required by the authorities (The history of the passport photo being certainly being worth more than this side note when speaking of portraits: http://blog.oup.com/2010/09/photographs-passports/ http://blakeandrews.blogspot.de/2009/05/brief-history-of-us-passport.html). Today, they are popular with tourists who provide themselves with snapshots of themselves. Great fun. A filmstrip with four black-and-white frames of inferior quality as a souvenir. And photographing for once becomes even a small event and almost always collective act in which not even waiting for the drying of the ejected images is an annoyance. Here one can recall the experience of shooting in earlier times. Old-school selfies. Also, the photo strip taken home and abroad can be seen as proof of the hypothesis (brought up by Jean in a earlier post) that the materiality of the photo still has not lost its function and meaning. Today, as the electronic companion in one's palm with its many functions can be seen as a mirror image of the perceptible "Ego" and “It”, and has replaced the vanity hand mirror in the (mostly) female hand or the camera in the (mostly) male hand with which one (as a tourist, explorer, or soldier) keeps a distance to the strangers and allows the self-exhibition of the ones close to home in foreign lands. What do we actually hang on to when holding those devices? When we cherish captured moments, what do we hold on to? And what does it mean to us that we display and archive our images with the help of the database logic of the software code rather than through intuitive sorting memory work? What has changed now that the photo albums, the boxes, and paper stacks look outdated? What about the places and locations where we perceive the images and where they are displayed and shared, stored, archived, and forgotten? The sites where we experience the materiality of images from yesterday (put in order in picture albums soon marked by use, wear, and time) that one by one map multiple times perceived when looking at photographs. On photos, we register time. Whose time? Although technical media are not language, they still produce our time. They dictate our time regime which we are subject to and according to which we exercise what we understand to be our subjectivity. This aforementioned gesture of holding on to our own images–as performative acts–appears to me conspicuously in sync with living under the dictates of self-optimization the multiple images of oneself all the time–a mere projection from the start, as we know, because no self exist as a given or can be depicted as such. Everywhere these days we are being assessed and have to apply for something–from the corridors of the pre-school up to the online forums of the dating sites for senior citizens–, we are being told to perform nothing but roles of one self 24/7: to show our faces as performers of our own so called selfies. All the world's a stage. And, simple truth we have to face, most of our hopeful prospects find their ways into the recycling bin after all. (See: http://artforum.com/picks/id=23379&view=print )

François Brunet
Posted 03.03.2014 at 16:26

Nils, I really like this comment particularly. I like your discussion of "old selfless" and the not-so-new compulsion to perform one's "self" for various social/economic purposes. I would not want to flatten historical perspective by suggesting that Narcissus is doing a selfie in his little pool. But I do think, as suggested in my first post, that there is something inherent in photography since 1839 that favors the selfie, even as I fully allow that the selfie as we know it today is "new". The (American esp.) self-portraits of the 1840s and 50s do not exactly seem "self-portraits" to me. The urge to perform, to pose, to construct oneself in front of the camera, is something that one can see in thousands of portraits in the 19th century. Is this the some thing that Skakespeare, Calderon or Corneille had in mind to represent ("All the world is a stage")? I don't know. The mechanics and the democratics of photography suggest otherwise to me. At least, I want to keep the historical-critical option that there are trends of today, such as the selfie, that "help" us understand trends of yesterday—without tilting over headlong into eternal anthropological truths.

François Brunet
Posted 03.03.2014 at 16:56

I meant "old selfies" not "old selfless" (nice automatic correction).

François Brunet
Posted 02.03.2014 at 23:12

@Nils. You have outdone yourself and I am find myself trying to archive your threads… Just two things for now. One, yes, you are entirely right to point out that I am talking about archives following a 19th century monumental/paper/museum model, while the #1 issue for today is, what will "our" archives look like tomorrow? How do we visualize digital archives? Are there to be archives? Two, I am struck by how much you talk about "we" and "our images," when (I think) I try to promote archive/s not as mine or ours or some government or other predictive/controlling entity's, and not, in Derrida's words, that which "produces as much as it records the event," but remains of unknown past experiences—not events merely— to be invented anywhere and everywhere for the present and the future. But I will be coming back shortly, if possible. For now, a lot of thanks for all your wonderful remarks and links, here especially the Mark Gerald interiors.

Jean Kempf
Posted 03.03.2014 at 00:33

Thank you François for devoting this (last) post to the archive/s, and for
1) reminding us that "the story of archives is . . . the story of photography itself." I couldn't agree more!
2) locating the suspicion towards photo-archives in a post-orwellian and post-foucaldian surveillance society. I would add located for the most part in the Anglo-American academic world.
3) clearly stating — after Didi-Huberman — that there is more to archives than mere oppression and control.

Your post leads me to make a few remarks which for the most part are totally congruent with yours. (Viz my following separate answers.)

Jean Kempf
Posted 03.03.2014 at 00:34

1) The reading of archives as archives of oppression are rooted in
historical experience. Totalitarian states have extensively used
photography less to support their policing than to (over)impress their
absolute power by recording it on the faces of their victims (here
again the power of portraiture). The most extreme example in recent
years has been the images of prisoners in the Tuol-Seng prison
who are about to be executed and earlier the archive of the Lubyanka
prison as shown in David King's Ordinary
Citizens (2003). (A good read in the matter is Susie Linfield's
book The Cruel Radiance. Photography
and political violence (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010) and
particulary pp.51-59). I guess lynching photos belong to that same
category: here
and here.
What we do with our cell phones is much less dramatic because the
subject is not life-and-death but is it epistemologically so very
different? I don't mean taking selfies
but also recording the obvious, the mundane, the factual, the
day-to-day, taking pictures which in no sense can be seen as praxis
(see here)
but merely as confirmation  and reinforcement of the existing. Is
it because despite our cynical and image-savvy culture we are still
deeply wed to the idea that things need to be represented to actually
exist? Well, if that is so, photography certainly is the tool and the
archive the place.
What's interesting also in what I read between the lines of Francois'
comparison/s is that the archive (perhaps less so archiveS) is a place
that only needs to exist as such to "function." No need to actually see
the pictures, no need to even print them: here hoarding is the name of
the game. This is the case of digital file also: no need to see the
millions of images we make (or to see many of them), it's enough to
know they "exist".

François Brunet
Posted 03.03.2014 at 16:02

@Jean, regarding your last point here ("no need to see the pictures"). Yes that was between the lines and yes I find this to be one of the overarching functions—not just side effects— of archives. In the 19th century, in the "archives" I have studied at least, it is very plausible that many pictures taken, amassed, printed, and bandied about in official reports were hardly ever looked at, and in most cases they are never commented on with any degree of specificity. The "archive" in the sense of a systematically or at least institutionally amassed ensemble of data seems indeed to "function" by itself, i.e. blindly. And it becomes, in a sense, "archives" in the "true" historical sense when people later start to "rediscover" it and search about for meanings, uses, powers, etc. Now there are also, I repeat, thousands of uninstitutional, un-controlled archives that function partly differently and partly not. One does not consign something to memory in order to keep it alive at the same time—something Freud knew quite well of course, and Plato before him.

Jean Kempf
Posted 03.03.2014 at 00:35

Simultaneously — and almost conversely — the
archive-made-easy-by-photography (a fast, cheap, mechanical process)
elicit a modern sensibility towards the past, one that feeds (on) the
feeling of nostalgia. (Nils (link) evoked it in a previous answer.)
Nostalgia is a broad modern feeling which closely accompanies the
mutations of the long industrial and now post-industrial revolution.
It's different from the often mentionned link between photo and death
(Barthes & alii). Nostalgia thrives upon the
past-recomposed-in-archives, and subtly blends with our rather new
desire for memory. The memory imperative that now sweeps the globe may
have many various forms and perhaps also many various causes (although
I'm under the impression that it's the mark of the final triumph of the
western zeigeist/ideology at the very moment when the west is
demographically and economically in peril). And photography happens to
be one of its chief media — the media being the message as we know. (I
sense something there but will need your help to go further.)

François Brunet
Posted 03.03.2014 at 16:09

Yes, of course, and that was the sense in which I made a passing reference to Alois Riegl and the "cult of monuments". The linkage of photography to this modern nostalgia is nowhere more apparent perhaps than in Arago's inaugural speech in 1839, and the larger context of Napoleonic France, the Musée des Monuments Historiques, etc. As far as the "medium" photography being "the message", are you perhaps suggesting that we are (time and again) experiencing "the end of photography" (see Trevor Paglen's first post today on Still Searching)?

Jean Kempf
Posted 03.03.2014 at 00:40

The archive has also become a major form in contemporary photo
practice itself. In two different versions. The first version is a
continuation of the survey practices, esp the anthropological streak
represented by 19th century practitioners both in Europe and in the US,
and culminating in August
Sander's project
. It had a resurgence in the 1960s with conceptual
photography with gas
, store fronts & alii (and in Germany with the
Bechers). Today it is a recurrent system in many documentary
photography (here
and here).

The second version is slightly more sophisticated — or less obvious —
and tries to explore the possibilities of new media, while redefining
the role of the photographer as maker, making her a "metaphotographer"
to use Fred Ritchin's phrase. One of the most telling instances of that
type is Susan Meiselas' akaKurdistan project. She
combines her own photographs with those of Kurds, but also develops a
complete collaborative archival project in which she helps the Kurds
save their own photographic heritage. For other similar projects and
cogent analyses I would actually refer here to Fred Ritchin's
thought-provoking book, Bending the Frame in which he
tries to map the shift taking place within "social/political"

François Brunet
Posted 03.03.2014 at 16:13

Yes, the "metaphotographic" mode definitely seems to be one of the new turns of the archive-art business today. I could cite also the bizarre but compelling work of Ken Gonzalez-Day (see his Lynching in the West, 1850-1935) who locates trees that served for lynchings from old photographs and rephotographs them today.

Jean Kempf
Posted 03.03.2014 at 00:40

Lastly, François' post on archives makes me think of the emergence
of (big) data as the new frontier of communication, information, and
research. The digital nature of most of today's communications — and in
particular images — has deeply transformed the nature of "objects"
allowing not only new and sophisticated visual/visible manipulations
(the "photoshopping"
, but also the recomposition of images into all sorts of new
data analysis (with the help of software, see here) and new forms of "mashing" ie
putting together heterogeneous pieces of information to new uses. This
is allowed by the reduction of all information to the same digital
coding, making an image, a text, or a sound basically identical. Thus
today's (digital) archives are not really dematerialized (digits are
real if only because they consume a lot of energy and need physical
storage) but they undergo a radical separation of content and form,
each being stored separately. (This is what the famous "xml" is about.)
Content is stored irrespective of form, and is made
understandable/"readable" through a set of metadata and a series of
instructions on how to display (ie make perceptible to humans) the
data/content. This has two consequences: images (or texts & sounds
for that matter) lose their specificity as mere "temporary state of
data" ; metadata is the key to present data, more important than the
data itself.
And yet, amidst this digital revolution, one thing struck me when I
talked to contemporary photojournalists and "documentarians": they keep
using the word "story" and will repeat over and over that they "tell
stories".  By the way few of them still use the term
"documentarians," prefering to call their photography "editorial" or
speaking about "projects" on their websites, an indication that 1) they
are definitely claiming a point of view; 2) they believe that
photography does not belong to the realm of the "unique" anymore (HCB's
philosophy of the decisive moment shared by many of his generation, and
in fact inherited from painting and the Hegelian concept of art) but
now requires other associations — with other media, with other
photographs —; and 3) they have a long-term commitment to a "subject" —
which is paradoxical as it has never been economically more difficult
to conduct long-term projects...

François Brunet
Posted 03.03.2014 at 16:18

Yes and yes, again. Data being transformed into/replaced by metadata. And yet photographers and others talking about "stories" (the whole world seems to revolve around storytelling and the debunking of storytelling today, as if a) the telling of stories was something new, esp. in politics b) the deconstruction of narratives was something new c) storytelling and its analysis were the whole story, so to speak). "Story" is another postmodern catchword, like "archive", marketable and counter marketable in similar ways. No space to develop this here, but surely this gives "us" old Europeans hope that our ancient modes of mediation will survive the metadata whirlwind?

Cancel reply