Summary Notes on Archives, Photographs and Indexicality

Readings and Reflection: Brief notes on Archives, Photographs and Indexicality

The following notes are a synthesis of my reading (so far)


Any archive has a structure and has been built for a specific purpose. This will mean that its contents are filtered to meet that purpose both from the intentions of the archive itself and also the fact that it is not possible to keep everything. Archives hide history, secrets and truth but can be interrogated – or psycho-analysed as Jacques Derrida termed it (bearing in mind he said this in the context of a Conference at the Freud Museum) Derrida, J (1995)– and de-constructed to explore new meanings. Artists can ‘lend speech’ to traces of the past.


Photography is simultaneously the documentary evidence and archival record of an event (Okwui Enwezor 2008) see here also . As such the making of a photograph is a mechanism of time-travel through which we return to the past and also create new meanings. Like other archives photographic archives also only present a version of the ‘truth’ but can be similarly de-constructed to find hidden meanings and produce new work (see H. Foster [2004] and my summary here  and also my writing on the way in which photographers have approached archives here   .

I was taken by Freud’s concept of the Mystic Writing-Pad, (S. Freud 1925) and its similarity to a palimpest in how it leaves a trace of the writing that has been erased.  This widened my thoughts towards the traces left on our skin from our life experiences – scars, wrinkles, tattoos.  Then I considered the photograph as such – the mechanics of its construction,  the way in which ink is layered on the photographic paper and how the photograph as an object in itself is affected by changes through time – changes which can be analysed. I think that Photoshop layers are another way of portraying new narratives; layering different photographs, documents or fragments from different time periods and have experimented with using this strategy.

The concept of an archive depends on a recognized structure, just as a family album usually has a particular structure/order to form a narrative that the maker wishes to portray. There’s anarchy though in an ‘archive’ consisting of fragments, ‘orphan’ photographs and un-dated documents which I think provides even more freedom to make of it what one will. However, when photographs are removed from their original context (including a family album) they become detached from collective memory and are forgotten or might be revealed as images that in their very banality, erase or negate meaning. Thomas Demand made this point about the construction of historical memory and the partiality of photographic vision with his work Room (Zimmer) 1996   when he re-staged a 1944 photograph by Adolf Hitler’s official photographer.

Thomas Demand.Room Zimmer) 1996
Room (Zimmer) (c) Thomas Demand (1996)

Demand created paper tableaux and photographed them to provide an illusion of the ‘real’, attempts to reconstruct an historically grounded, 3D ‘reality’ based only on information contained in media photographs.

However,  a photograph removed from its original context can yield hitherto unnoticed information for example Gillian Rose’s respondents believed their family photos were truthful in showing what somebody really looked like but they could also see truths not seen at the time – such as illness (G. Rose [2010]).

Notes on the indexicality of photography and memory

I’ve much more to read on this so the following are serving as a bookmark.

Regarding the ontology of the photographic image – this enables the subject to elude death because, by its very nature, the image preserves the subject through the act of memory and remembering – the ‘victory of time’ in artificially preserving bodily appearance. (Bazin, A & Gray, H [1960]). Interesting to me because the first sentences link the origin of painting and sculpture with a ‘mummy complex’ and I only recently wrote about photography, memento mori and sacred objects here . This implies an indexical relation between the image and its referent, and a reliance on memory’s capacity to recall such images but it is now frequently emphasized that our memories are faulty (which is problematic given that much of our Criminal Justice system relies on the memory of witnesses).

A photograph might be both evidence and record of an event but this is mediated by the influence of memory, perception/psychological processing of events in the past. For example, with my family photographs I have often either known the person or heard stories about them and so this cannot but influence the way I read these photographs. I don’t think we can escape our psychological/neurological make-up, but we can become more aware of the process and challenge it.  Added to this, memory (whether it is ‘true’, probably true or ‘false’) is the foundation of our sense of identity. If it is challenged, then the individual has to process the effect of cognitive dissonance – deal with new truths or harden current beliefs to retain/renew sense of self.

I also think of imagination in relation to memory, including the process of ‘magical thinking’ that we still retain in some form after childhood, and that allows us to re-shape our perception (and memories). Writers such as Simon Schama (1995) have pointed towards the effect of collective memory in particular places – often connected with sites of tragedies of human nature. In his writings on ‘Aura’ Walter Benjamin also had a view that the events of history, “shrivel up and become absorbed into the site of the event” (1977:179).  These feelings that people experience, how much is that due to imagination I wonder; imagination that allows us to be in that place, here and now, and then, in some fashion, extend our senses into an empathic response to it? In fact, can I even extend this to photographs and Barthes’ ‘punctum’?




Bazin, A & Gray, H (1960) “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4. (Summer, 1960) pp-4-9 at (Accessed on 26th January 2017)
Benjamin, W (1977) the Origin of German Tragic Drama, Verso Press
Derrida, J. (1995) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression
Enwezor, O (2008) Archive Fever : Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, New York, ICP
Foster, H (2004) An Archival Impulse in OCTOBER 110, Fall 2004, pp. 3-22 MIT Press
Freud, S (1925) Note upon the “Mystic Writing Pad” (1925) pp in  Freud, S (1963), General Psychological Theory, Chapter XIII, Macmillan Publishing Company, pp 207-212
Rose, G. (2010) Doing family photography: The domestic, the public and the politics of sentiment. Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing.
Schama, S. (1995) Landscape and memory. London: HarperCollins Publishers.







  1. The book I’m reading at the moment talks about consciousness being a ‘sampling of the events and processes that go on in the total mind’ which your opening paragraph reminded me of. (Gregory Bateson, the father of Nora Bateson who wrote the book Mandy quoted in her masters about masculine and famine voice.) I also listened to Noam Chomsky talking about language acquisition, in the 70s I think, and he speaks about how our minds are limited in the way we see, understand and think. Artists might be working on the fringes of this understanding, the collective frames we have are all we have and we cannot see beyond. I suppose archives work in the same way, as a metaphor for, or representation of, the way we fundamentally operate. Interesting post.


      1. I’m pleased if it made sense to you. Freud’s Mystic Writing Pad was certainly a metaphor for memory.

        Yes, there is so much streaming constantly into our brains (and always has been even though the stimuli might have altered) that the human brain does need to filter/categorise it so it’s not surprising that we can get it wrong. When we accept this then we can find ways to subvert it. Also I read an article yesterday about the furore that occurred when one of our institutions changed their classification system of their archive even though the contents of the archive remained the same – can’t remember which institution but will add a note if I find it again.

        Re feminine/famine – I think you might be right given what’s going on in the US at present.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Your work so resonates with particularly 2 of the speakers at the Arts Mundi 7 conference I went to yesterday: Lamia Joreige spoke on remembering as fictionalised chronicles /fragmented images particularly in a post-war area – in her case Beirut. The second brilliant speaker was John Akomfrah who spoke of ‘Hauntology” in which images are a repository of a haunting: images which tell you the viewer that the subject is both with you and ‘elsewhere’, and that the ‘elsewhere’ is also in the banality of images. He also spoke about the changing way in which we see archives: they used to be something that was stored somewhere but now that haunting by the past makes us widen the meaning of the archive. I hope this makes sense. Paddy Howe, who was with me, has just written up her review which is excellent. You can read it here:


    1. Thanks for the link and I enjoyed reading Paddy’s post. I had already researched the brilliant work of Lamia Joreige which interests me particularly as I have a friend born in Lebanon but living in the UK for many years. I know how torn she feels between her past and her present.

      Interesting when John Akomfrah talks of ‘Elsewhere’ as “…. the real place exists in the heart or memory and always lies ‘elsewhere’. To test whether or not an individual has reached the ‘elswhere’, he says to watch their eyes. People in the present will keep eye contact, but those in the ‘elsewhere, will look away into the distance, to a place that they want to take you to”. So many links there with the concept of ‘home’ and what that means.

      I think it’s so complicated because one description of ‘the real’ is that which you can actually touch in the here and now and is concrete. If you stretch ‘real’ though then that becomes where your brain/memory has taken you which also seems real at that moment. The note about eye direction is well known in neuro-linguistic programming terms We as humans seem to be constantly moving between past, present and future and I think this is more or less helpful according to context/personal experience.

      It’s all wonderful material for creative photography work. I’m at the stage of thinking there’s too much choice at the moment!


  3. Your reading is so much more efficient than mine Catherine, as is your reflection on that reading. This sounds such an interesting module, maybe the way to go when I finish documentary. Now I am off to read Paddy’s review of the Artes Mundi conference!


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