Genres – Responding to the archive

Lion Tamer - Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Lion Tamer – Tyne & Wear Museums & Archive – via Flickr Creative Commons

I was looking for something to illustrate my reflections about ‘the archive’ and specifically searched for a photo of an archive.  Nothing came up, but this photograph leapt off the screen at me.  It was, originally, a glass slide, one of a number of fairground images in that format found in a store at the Discovery Museum, Tyne & Wear.  There is absolutely no information about the photographer, the subject, the location, the purpose – nothing.  It is so tempting to begin to speculate, to interpret.  But what right do I have, probably one hundred years after it was taken?  Leave him and his lions (well two of them at least) to stare out at us over the decades; and let whatever is happening off frame, to their right, remain a historical mystery.  This is just one of the billions of images I can access, almost instantly, via the 21st century ‘archive’ that is the internet.  Is there any wonder that so many contemporary artists use that creative potential to seek to create meaning?

Coincidentally, the Tyne & Wear Archive was one of several sources of photographs, prints, paintings, artefacts, recordings and other parephenalia, used by Jeremy Deller in putting together ‘All That is Solid Melts into Air’, which is currently on show at Manchester Art Gallery, and which I saw last week.  To be a little more precise, he sourced from 9 museums; 2 libraries; 2 city archives; 4 art galleries; plus various artists & private collections, as well as creating some of the work himself.  Deller’s working method is very curatorial; and I suppose there might be debate as to whether this was ‘his work’ or just an exhibition that he has curated.  I would go with the former – but I’m not sure it matters.  What he does, with this work, is invite the 21st century viewer to consider and relate to his/her history – specifically to the impact of the Industrial Revolution on British people and culture – by a careful and clever juxtaposition of images, artefacts, sounds and creations, from the very recent past to the late eighteenth century.  It is fair to say that, in the context of this note and this section of my Body of Work module, he is working with and responding to ‘the archive’.

The module notes invite me to look at an article written, in 1986, by Allan Sekula, titled ‘Reading an archive: photography between labour and capital’, which appears in ‘Visual Culture: a reader’, edited by Evans and Hall, Sage Publications, London, 1999.  The article links the photographic archive with power, in the context of economic life (pertinent, therefore, to the Deller exhibition).  In essence, the argument goes along these lines:

  • The archive is ‘property’ and subbordinates original meaning and use to the logic of exchange.
  • Meaning depends on context and the archive, by supplying institutional authority and control, shifts images away from their origins and so may release the user (of the archive) from the responsibility to refer to original meaning and purpose.
  • This maintains a hidden connection between knowledge and power.
  • He also questions the validity of photographs as historical documents (or at least he questions history that is based on photographs) and as artworks.  The former tends towards spectacle and exoticism and the latter towards romanticism (if it favours the authorial perspective) or detachment, irony and even contempt (if it treats the photograph as a found object to be ‘interpreted’ – my ‘Lion Tamer’, for example).

Photography, Sekula concludes, has served as a tool of industrial and bureaucratic power.

Reflecting on this, I note:

  • that it was written nearly 30 years ago, in the context of physical, and largely institutional archiving, as opposed to open and digital archives;
  • that the scale of what might be interpreted as the photographic archive has moved on, as have the means of organising and the scope for searching and selecting images;
  • but the ‘power’ issue is potentially even more important – in the context of online archives, stock photography, sophisticated search engines, and the explosion of web-based vernacular images;
  • plus, the subordination of original use and the scope for new meaning becomes even more significant when ‘ownership’ is a) disputed anyway, with so many ‘orphan images’ circulating the web, and b) even further separated from the originator and any notion of authorial authority.

In ‘The Photographic Image in Digital Culture’, edited by Martin Lister, Routledge London, 2013, Nina Lager Vestberg’s article ‘The Photographic Image in Digital Archives’  confirms that 1980s critical studies of the archive, such as Sekula’s, were concerned with the ‘uses and abuses’ of the archive and approached the idea from a materialistic perspective.  Looking with a more contemporary perspective, she distinguishes between ‘Digitisation’ of images, including those from the old, physical archives, and ‘Computerisation’ of working practics – the latter leading to a changing role for the archivist (interfacing between user and ‘system’ as opposed to user and ‘image) and the ‘invisibility’ of the algorithmic search.  In the context of ‘stock photography’, she also notes the huge increase in staged or modelled images designed purely for stock purposes (Paul Frosh, in the same publication, refers to the ‘wallpaper of consumer culture’); the use of keywords (often highly conceptual in nature) to fuel searches and retrieval of images; and the changes to licencing rights.

Which brings me, directed by the module notes and in the context of keywords, to Taryn Simon’s ‘The Picture Collection’, an exhibition based on selections from the New York Library’s picture archive.  That archive comprises 12,000 folders, with individual titles such as ‘Handshaking, ‘Express Highways’ and ‘Yellow’, to name just three, which contain, in total, 1.2 million physical images, collected together by the library staff, since 1915.  Simon makes her own selection, from a selection of the folders, to create large scale ‘collage-type’ images.  Even without seeing the physical exhibition itself, one is prompted to reflect on the very process of the archive’s compilation over nearly 100 years, and the short video in this link highlights the fascinating juxtaposition of images the archive has produced.  But I am also prompted to relate this work to the concept of ‘Keywords’ in contemporary digital archiving.  The NY Library staff, over the years, have made individual decisions to place each specific, physical image into a specifically named physical folder.  Vestberg quotes just one, relatively insignificant image that she uses to illustrate her article as having well over 100 keywords attached to it – the equivalent of placing it in over 100 of the NY Library folders at the same time, of course.

For me, this is another illustration of the challenge, in critical photographic studies, to keep up with and ‘contain’ (in a critical theoretical sense) the changes brought about by the internet and digital media.  Issues of power, control, politics, economics, meaning and truth, all of which might reasonably be discussed in the context of a photographic archive, become even harder to fully comprehend.  So, one senses, critical theory and study can become more a question of ‘coping’ than of explaining and understanding.  Frosh, in his article in the Lister book above, refers to Getty Images as having an aspiration to become a ‘total archive’.  (He compares Getty to Hobbes’ Leviathan.)  Where, one wonders, does that take Sekula’s questions about ‘power’?

One brief reflection on the ‘Lion Tamer’ – what would he make of these questions?  I allow myself that reflection only to emphasise to myself that I probably have about as much chance of knowing what his life is all about as he has of comprehending mine.  The archive, especially the great archive we call the internet, is a powerful, attractive and tempting source of creative imagery and meaning – but one to be read and interpreted with some caution.

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