What Can Photography Do? | Hilde Van Gelder | Monday, 11.06.2012

An Anti-Archival Impulse

In this post, I want to continue the reflection on how photography can today serve as a contributing motor for social change by turning our attention to the photographic archive. I would like to focus on a concrete example, the long-term project Theory of Justice initiated by the artist Peter Friedl in 1992. This work is composed from the artist’s vast collection of newspaper and magazine clippings. A specific selection of black-and-white photographs was published as an artist’s book in 2006. Others have been exhibited on various occasions in specifically designed showcases. In the context of Theory of Justice, Friedl insists on his preference for the term “collection” instead of “archive.” From an aesthetic point of view, a photographic archive is “nonsense,” he argues, “unless you are digging for mythological information.” As such, Friedl is part of a larger group of contemporary artists whose work is marked by an anti-archival impulse.
Peter Friedl, Theory of Justice, 1992-. Installation view, Sala Rekalde, Bilbao (2010). © Peter Friedl
Photographic archives all over the world have increasingly become institutionalized: the previously established idea that the archive be granted a potentially ‘eternal sleep’ in the place that preserves it, waiting to be more or less randomly discovered by its researchers, is a norm that no longer holds. Photographic archives are meant to be profitable: their consultants are now seen as clients to whom copyright-protected merchandise can be sold in order to fund the institution. Consequently, power relationships with regard to the distribution of information from such archives have shifted: if you don’t pay, you don’t publish the photo. And even if you are ready to pay, publication may be prohibited if the copyright holder considers the content of your text inappropriate.
As a result, both artists and researchers are increasingly shifting their focus and drift their attention to photographic materials that are more randomly available, and can be used and distributed more freely. Peter Friedl’s personal collection is a key example of how significant photographic materials can be found outside of the commercialized institutional context. This way, he not only points at the limits of the neoliberal valorisation model. But also does he avoid the risk that photographic materials become subservient to hegemonic forces of power in society. As Allan Sekula has argued, this was often the case during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to the point where photography became the dangerous ally of racial stereotyping and the emblematic tool of criminal jurisprudence.
Sekula proposes a reading of the photographic archive “from below,” in full solidarity with “those displaced, deformed, silenced or made invisible by the machineries of profit and progress.” Following the example of Walker Evans, Sekula also makes a strong plea for artists to make “combative and antiarchival” sequences of photographic work. He argues that Evans made his photographs within a logic of resistance to the early twentieth-century institutionalised photographic archive model. This model tended to relegate the individual photographer to the status of a detail worker (for example, endlessly producing reproductions of paintings), thus providing fragmentary images for an apparatus beyond his or her control. That this type of photographic archive could indeed get seriously out of control has been powerfully illustrated by Sally Stein, in her study of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, demonstrating how photographs were employed to incriminate others to the police by handing over pictures to the authorities as proof-material for their illegal status.
When Sekula speaks of Evans’s photographic sequences as anti-archival gestures, he means by this that they point to that which risks remaining invisible when we only privy ourselves to the archival “bureaucratic handling of visual documents”: namely, on one hand, the sheer disregard or, on the other hand, the victimisation of those depicted by it. In order to avoid both of these problematic viewing mechanisms, he believes, like Evans, in the artistic format of mute, poetic photographic sequences. Friedl’s Theory of Justice appears to do just this as well: it radically goes against the bureaucratic handling of photographic materials and presents mute photographic sequences: we only know that Friedl determined the order of their display on the basis of the chronology of the events depicted in them instead of on their actual date of publication.
Theory of Justice is an unfinished project: Friedl is always on the lookout for more materials. As such, his artistic attitude of systemic resistance appears accompanied by an implicit suggestion: the claim that, although there is an enormous amount of photographs at our disposal today, there is also always, at the same time, somewhere, a body of photographs that remains inaccessible. Although they may well already exist somewhere, someplace, they have thus far remained hidden from us. In this sense, we can think of the photographs that will eventually become added to the project as the ‘optical unconscious’ — to employ a term from Walter Benjamin — of the era we live in. They point at that which has not been properly photographically archived (or not that we currently know of), and which escapes any strategies of valorisation or functionalised visibility.
Peter Friedl, Theory of Justice, 1992-. Installation view, Sala Rekalde, Bilbao (2010). © Peter Friedl.
Theory of Justice thus inherently carries the ambition to keep alive the collective, imaginary memory of potentially yet to be revealed photographs. In an even stronger reading, the sequence also seems to suggest that the future knowledge of these pictures will potentially change our opinion and understanding of the specific situation from which they emerge. As an anti-archival artwork, Theory of Justice is for us a lesson in humbleness in regard to our expectations of the photographic archive proper. It asks us not to forget that there is a limit to how much we can accept as conclusive knowledge, and it reminds us to remain skeptical when an archival photograph is presented to us as keyhole through which we are to spy the truth of historical events. “In fact,” Friedl says, “my collection is shrinking rather than growing.”