Project 2: The artist as archivist

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.






The Sphinx and Me: History, Memory and Family Photography


What I’m talking about now is a very ancient part of human awareness. It may even be what defines the human – although it [was] largely forgotten in the second half of the 20th century. The dead are not abandoned. They are kept near physically. They are a presence. What you think you’re looking at on that long road to the past is actually beside you where you stand.

(John Berger talking with Philip Maughan for a New Statesman article 11 June 2015 – accessed here)

I was interested in Egypt from being quite small – this strange and exotic place my father wrote to me about. I realise now that he talked mainly in general terms so I only remember the Dead Sea, Bitter Lake and that he saw the Sphinx  the ancient and mysterious monolith that guards some of the pyramids. I remember him talking about Nefertiti and scarab beetles but nothing more specific. Of course, these vague allusions allowed my imagination to get to work and build my own version of it which I was able to test in December 2005 when I went to Egypt for ten days, boarding the aeroplane on the 4th December which was apt because that’s my birthday. My dad was with me there somehow and I was wondering whether he’d been to the places I visited; would have loved to have been able to talk to him about it.

On the way to see the Sphinx our guide pointed out a large Cemetery telling us how people lived there amongst the tombs of their ancestors. This was Cairo’s el-Arafa necropolis known as The City of the Dead, which has existed for 700 years or more. Imagine, living amongst the dead with them as daily companions.

It felt strange to be standing on that high plateau overlooking Cairo, with the Sphinx and pyramids at my back. So much history and the stories about those ancient times gleaned from discoveries; piercing together the fragments of hieroglyphics and the journeys of the pharaohs to the Underworld.. So much time, effort and cost devoted to death and what comes after, whilst continuing the social structures and segregation of the living – Valley of the Kings, Queens, high-born nobles and workers.


I’m connecting up dots here – fragments of history, the old photographs I now have that don’t appear to have been in an album at any point and what they stand for in my own life. I’ve spent considerable time delving into genealogy records, searching for links and made some interesting discoveries. What’s happened is that I’ve felt steeped in this family history for quite some time and, after reflection have reached the conclusion that this is because I am researching what makes me ‘me’, how I got to this place in life, with the particular attitudes and values I have that reflect the social and cultural environment that contributed to my self-concept and sense of identity.

If one follows the view that there is only ‘the here and now’ with history as memory and the future imagined then what is the purpose of history? Why do we revere the monuments of the past and, in some instances, literally worship our ancestors? I’m thinking also of the part that photographs play in all this and wondering how much changing practices of dealing with death have affected the growth of photography. I’m linking this with two aspects. What happened before photography was invented? How did people ‘remember’ their history and deceased loved ones. Presumably through objects left behind, letters , paintings and oral memories passed down (and transmuted over time I imagine), although, of course, this would vary according to factors such as wealth and literacy. There was also the journey to the graveside of the loved one and ‘being with’ them for a time – remembering them. Whenever I travel back to Sheffield (which isn’t so often nowadays) I always visit the cemetery and ‘tell’ the family news, so that the grave-site itself becomes a container for memories, stories from the past, and I know where to find them as it were.


However, cremations are more prevalent now, for various reasons, so this ‘container’ for the past no longer exists. Have photographs, perhaps, taken their place – particularly printed photographs, physical objects that can be held, gazed at. I know that photographs are two-dimensional but the structure of our brains somehow enables us to embody them. I intend to write more on this in a further essay, but, certainly when writing about her research into family photography Gillian Rose commented that there were moments in interviews when the photograph was addressed or described as if it was the person it showed, “This is …….” and interviewees giving examples of having photos of parents on the bedside table and feeling uncomfortable (G. Rose, 2010:30).

Reflecting now, I think that I have become so immersed in my old photographs that the people in them have become ‘alive’ to me and this might be one of the reasons why I have been working through this part of the Module so slowly and felt reluctant to disturb the photographs by using processes such as cutting, tearing, slicing to de-construct and re-construct them into a narrative. I have experimented with layers etc (examples in a later post) and took some of these photographs to the work review session during the OCA Brighton Study Visit in October last year. I explained some of the difficulties I was experiencing and how I had wondered whether I should work with other photographs instead. However, I was encouraged by the presiding tutor to continue with work that I felt was meaningful to me and remember saying to him afterwards “I just have to stop treating these photographs as sacred objects”.

At times I’ve thought I was procrastinating in my OCA studies but have realised that, in effect, I’ve been enacting my reading and experiencing what’s actually involved in utilising archives whilst gaining further understanding of family photography as a practice. I have more thinking to do so this post is just a step along the way.


Rose, G. (2010) Doing family photography: The domestic, the public and the politics of sentiment. Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing.



Part 2, Project 2 : Exercise 2.2

Write 500 words on a piece of work by one contemporary artist-photographer who uses the archive as a source material.

I have already written about several such artists but wanted to write about some work with which I felt a more personal connection.

Kern Baby : Faye Claridge (2015)

In the introduction to her website Faye Claridge   refers to her ‘fascination with representation and belonging in a country obsessed with (constantly reworked) history’ and how she explores the way in which ‘identity’ is shaped by ideas about the past. I share her view on the importance of, “.. understanding ideas of ‘Englishness’ based on social equality, inclusion, diversity and internationalism”. I am interested in the way she enters into collaboration with others, often young people, to explore these issues, and how she uses, performance, film and photography to to create contemporary work.

I was introduced to her work during my research into GRAIN   and their collaboration with the Library of Birmingham. Claridge was commissioned by GRAIN, initially through a turning Point West Midlands Residency, and worked extensively with the Library’s  Sir Benjamin Stone Collection. I clicked on to GRAIN’s website and immediately felt a personal connection when I saw this.


(C) Faye Claridge (2015)










A huge doll, mannequin? For a brief instant I was reminded of Royal de Luxe and the Little Girl Giant, but this “Kern Baby” was something more, with deeper roots. Claridge was inspired by Stone’s own photograph of a Kern Baby in Whalton, Northumberland, from his album of unusual festivals and customs taken as he travelled around the country

The Harvest Home “Kerr Baby” of 1901. Whalton, Northumberland. 1902. The Benjamin Stone Collection

The Harvest Home “Kerr Baby” of 1901. Whalton, Northumberland. 1902.
The Benjamin Stone Collection











(Downloaded with the permission of the Curator’s department, The Library of Birmingham )

They both stand proud in the landscape. Stone’s Kern Baby standing out from her backdrop of greenery through her pale dress, whereas Claridge’s Kern Baby dominates the landscape. Both continue the old tradition of corn dolls, practised in many countries in different ways, from pagan times – shapes fashioned from the last sheaf of wheat or other crop and celebrating the harvest – some small and some very large. Faye Claridge’s sculpture was created as a result of a commission from Compton Verney  , with the photograph being exhibited at the Library of Birmingham in an Exhibition in  during 2016.

Here is a video showing how Faye Claridge then brought Kern Baby back to Wharton,Northumberland, so completing the circle from Benjamin Stone’s photograph in 1901, and also her regrets that the tradition is no longer continued there.

There is another series of photographs A Child for Sacrifice   and a Blurb book  resulting from a collaboration with young people to re-interpret customs using artefacts from the Marton Museum of Country Bygones








© Faye Claridge 2015

There is a mix of black and white and colour (referencing Stone’s interest in different processes) with a feel of a traditional event brought into present day through this artistic collaboration.

May-day festivities, Knutsford, Cheshire. Crowning May Queen (Miss Julia Wragg). (Master James Norbury, Crownbearer). 1902. The Benjamin Stone Collection

May-day festivities, Knutsford, Cheshire. Crowning May Queen (Miss Julia Wragg). (Master James Norbury, Crownbearer). 1902.
The Benjamin Stone Collection










Thanks again to Faye Claridge and the Library of Birmingham for agreeing to my use of the images.

Personal Connections

I have always been interested in traditional folk tales and present day traditions/events that hearken back to much earlier practices.  In fact I’ve often wondered how much people know of their origins. When I was comparing Sir Benjamin Stone’s images with Faye Claridge’s work.  I was taken back to May Day events when I was in school, dancing around the Maypole as well as the other performances such as being principal boy in “Coppelia” and playing Minuet in G on the piano whilst dressed in a paper crinoline (which I afterwards inadvertently stepped through and tore). Looking at Stone’s archive also linked with some of the photographs in two albums I purchased from eBay which contain photographs taken at my school in the 1940s and early 1950s. Sadly I don’t appear there though

Presumably taken by one of the teachers, and with the last one hand-painted.

Looking at the three sets of images made me think  about the differences between the vernacular – a teacher (perhaps) recording an event where teachers and children had worked together to produce a ‘performance’ and the artistic – an early, gifted amateur photographer recording an event as he travelled around the country and a contemporary artist creating sculpture and performance events, with collaboration from youngsters, and recording the results. I also thought of the way in which children’s school performances can now be subject to restrictions (e.g. Nativity Plays are sometimes regarded as politically incorrect due to the mix of cultures in a school) so new performances/events need to be created that represent present-day culture. I am also questioning ‘identity’ and how its formation is linked with nurture, environs and cultural/social history and tradition particularly against the background of current political events, but that’s a much wider topic than I can address here.




GRAIN Arts Organisation and Responses to Archives

GRAIN is an independent arts organisation based in the West Midlands that collaborates with national and international partners to support/grow opportunities for artists, photographers and curators. GRAIN commissions  new work , offers residencies  with the Library of Birmingham and other partners and collaborates in research projects such as Photography and the Archive  which was site-specific and responsive to material housed in the Library of Birmingham Photography Collection. Participants in Photography and the archive took Bournville Village as a starting point and catalyst for new work exploring the application of Documentary Photography in relationship to the archive. I spent a few years living in Birmingham not far from Bournville Village and the mention of it brought back the smell of chocolate that often used to waft over our estate.

I enjoyed exploring the varied projects and artists involved but will confine myself to mention of just a few of them before writing in more detail on one in particular for Exercise 2.2.

Sophy Rickett & Bettina von Zwehl :Album 31

In 2012  Photographers Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl were commissioned by GRAIN to respond to the photographic collection of Sir Benjamin Stone   which is housed in Birmingham Library. Sir Benjamin Stone  (1838-1914) was a Birmingham industrialist and politician.  He was also a skilled amateur photographer and collector of photographs. He recorded the sights and personalities of the Palace of Westminster and “made it his business to photograph every MP, servants of the Houses of Parliament and many of those who visited” Some of which are held at the National Portrait Gallery In 1897 he announced the formation of the National Photographic Record Association (BPRA) whose aim was,  ‘to record the ancient buildings, folk customs and other ‘survivals’ of historical interest for the future’  and create a national memory bank. The NPRA deposited 5883 photographs at the British Museum between 1897 and 1910, of which 1532 were by  Sir Benjamin, and all these photographs were eventually transferred to the V&A.

The Collection in the Library of Birmingham was presented to the Library by  his trustees in 1921. Stone amassed 50 albums of photographs, classified to reflect his interests, but Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl concentrated on Album 31 (labelled “Sundry Photographs”) which contained photographs Stone wanted to keep but that didn’t fit into any of his other albums. Rickett and von Zwehl produced a new series of album pages (10) using motifs they had identified as characteristic of Stone’s own album, such as oval frames around images within pages.  The source imagery came from their own archives – outboxes and abandoned projects that had not previously ‘seen the light of day’. They combined colour and black and white as Stone had been interested in the permanence of different print processes.  The collaboration produced some beautiful pages, re-contextualising the artists’ own images and including extracts of text which was a mix of personal reflections and diary entries.  the new album pages were exhibited at the Library in 2015 and there is a review here by Oliver McCall (31 August 2015) and information on the Grain site here. I felt quite entranced by the pages I’ve been able to access which, to me, have a delicacy and translucency about them which mirrors the pages of Stone’s album whilst presenting different and contemporary work.

Broomberg & Chanarin : Spirit is a Bone

These photographers explored the Library archives over a period of two years, making connections with these, their own work and their own concerns.  They drew attention to both access to and the structure of the archive and certainly connected with the Sir Benjamin Stone Collection and Stone’s need to document, collect, control and own. This included his Album no. 50 “Types and Races of Mankind” that ‘includes what might be called non-consensual images”.

From Broomberg & Chanarin’s  website   you can download a PDF of a conversation between themselves and Eval Weizman,  that also includes photographs taken by Sir Benjamin Stone (amongst others). They explain to Weizman that they encountered an impasse when they began to engage with the Library archives. Material is stored in hermetically sealed vaults and controlled by air-conditioning apparatus that sucks out oxygen and replicates high altitude conditions. Staff must undergo medical clearance before being allowed to enter as extended exposure can cause shortness of breath and dizziness. As members of the public Broomberg & Chanarin werere unable to roam freely because of these restrictions so, ‘…. Were reliant on the knowledge, memory and catalogues built up by generations of staff to access material …. It always seems to come down to a question of access: who is controlling the archive, who is compiling it and using it, and to what ends’.

They refer to Sekula’s essay on the archive and its connection

……. with the operations of power that regulate the social body, placing the development of photography in the context of the emergence of policing and technologies of surveillance …. It’s difficult to extricate the final result of these archives from the intentions of their maker or makers; yet their very preservation leaves them subject for constant revision. These collections, far from being inert documents tucked away in dusty boxes in forgotten rooms, harbour an insidious power. In some ways we’re still facing the same impasse we felt when we began this project – there’s a loaded sense of responsibility in the use and creation of archives such as this, and there’s a sense that it’s unstable ground; that it could backfire.

Weizman reflects during the discussion that, as a tool, it can be used in many ways and so is out of control of its makers and can be used against the people that made it, ‘… different questions can always be posed and those questions will be different at every historical conjecture, with a different political constellation around that question. Once a photograph has been used in a particular way, and returned to the archive it has the potential to be read again, ‘its potential will always be in excess of the particular history that produced it.

The title of the work is a quote from Hegel’s essay the Phenomenology of the Spirit” where he contrast physiognomy with the science of phrenology (cf Sekula again). As I would have expected from looking at their previous work Broomberg & Chanarin subvert and challenge the archive. They obviously accessed material from it because they’re utilising it although perhaps they requested for it to be brought from those ‘protected’ vaults. Additionally, as a response to the archive (and referencing Sir Benjamin Stone) they went on to use a potentially oppressive recognition system for their work Spirit is a Bone. They created a series of portraits- a taxonomy of portraits in contemporary Russia – using a facial recognition system machine developed in Moscow for public security and border control surveillance.  The results resemble a digital life mask – a 3D facsimile that can be rotated and scrutinised and the low resolution and fragmented portraits are presented according to profession.

Interim thoughts

As mentioned at the beginning, I spent some time delving into GRAIN’s projects, particularly those responding to archives. I felt inspired by the many different ways in which the artists produced new work – work that connected in some way, whether by design, structure or content, and yet was completely fresh. I think the two projects I’ve written about here relate to re-contextualisation, subversion and de-construction of archives. Bloomberg & Chagrin particularly point to the way in which the structure of archives can both protect and deflect access. In my next post on the connected exercise I’ll look at another function of archives.









5. Okwui Enwezor writing on the archive Fever Exhibition 2008

Okwui Enwezor is a Nigerian curator, art critic, writer, poet and educator, specializing in art history, living in New York City and Munich (where he is the director of the Haus der Kunst non-collecting art museum). The paper provided to read is the introduction in the catalogue of  an exhibition Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art   which he organized at the International Center of Photography (ICP) New York in May 2008.

This Exhibition presented works by contemporary artists (from the 1960s to the then present) who were using photographic images to ‘to rethink the meaning of identity, history, memory, and loss and, in doing so, utilising the concept of the archival influence as a means of structuring the meaning of images and the way we look at history. The Exhibition explored the ways in which artists ‘appropriated, interpreted, reconfigured and  interrogated archival structures and materials’, thus subverting the intention and structure of specific archives – albeit being invited to do so.  The site link provides access to a PDF of the media release which gives a useful overview of the aims and content of the Exhibition and I have also a full set of notes from my reading of the Enwezor’s essay.

What follows is my summary of what struck me as points to consider. My further thoughts are included in italics.

 Photography and the Archive

  • Photography is simultaneously the documentary evidence and the archival record of such transactions – Because the camera is literally an archiving machine, every photograph, every film is a priori an archival object. (p.12)
  • The making of a photograph is part of a construction of aide-memoires …. A mechanism of time travel through which we return to the past, compiling indexes of comparisons and tables of facts that generate their own public and private meanings (p.13)
  • As everyday users become distributors of archival content across an unregulated field of image sharing …. The photograph becomes the sovereign analogue of identity, memory, and history, joining past and present, virtual and real, thus giving the photographic document the aura of an anthropological artefact and the authority of a social instrument. I look at the photographs in my archive and, in remembering and recollecting, re-create different versions of my history
  • Beyond the realm of the snapshot is another empire … connected to a more regulative, bureaucratic, institutional order that invigilates and exercises control over bodies and identities. This links with Allan Sekula’ essay, e.g. Bertillon’s ‘criminals’ and Francis Galton’s ‘the racially inferior’.

Archive as Form


  • Marcel Duchamp and his “La boite-en-valise (1935-41) “not only a sly critique of the museum as institution and the artwork as artefact, it is fundamentally also about form and concept” (p.14). I didn’t know about this art form of a museum in a suitcase when I put my own photographs into boxes. It just seemed a natural thing to do. An example of the way in which artists structure artistic thinking.
  • Gerhard Richter and “Atlas”(1964-present) . Enwezor refers to Lynne Cooke’s view that this ‘collection’, arranged on loose sheets of paper, “… hovers between the promise of taxonomic order as divulged in the archive and the total devastation of that promise…” (p.19)In respect of the ‘archival impulse’  as identified by Hal Foster, artists interrogate the claims of the archive by reading it against the grain .
  • The concept of ‘archive’ depends on an innate (recognized?) structure If every archive is organised in a similar way, following particular rules then it is accessible by those who know the rules. There’s anarchy though in an ‘archive’ consisting of fragments, individual photographs and documents in no particular order.  There is a freedom in that though to make of it what you will, to de-construct received wisdom and look at it another way. I’m thinking here of GRAIN’s collaboration with Birmingham City Library Archives for instance or of Walker Evans “taking back” his images from the FAS archives.

Intelligence Failure/Archival Disappointment

  • Enwezor gives several examples here – one is how the principles of espionage were used in the British Empire’s search for knowledge and the mapping of unknown territory in Tibet. This to be conducted by ‘native explorers’ who were actually a network of Hindu pundit spies from the Indian Himalayas. Enwezor refers to Peter Hopkirk’s’s tracing of this story and how the survey may equal Google Maps for its pinpoint precision.
  • Mention of Google Maps – reminds me of how this has been used to discover that which is hidden/secret, e.g. the work of Mischa Henner, and how Google Earth suppresses some of its aspects ‘in the interest of national security’. I’m not going to write about Iraq and the WMD because it’ll make me feel to angry.

Documents into Monuments: Archives as Meditations on Time

  • How artists may undertake to “memorize’ the monuments of the past, transform them into ‘documents’ and so ‘lend speech to those traces which, in themselves, are often not verbal, or which say in silence something other than what they actually say’. For example, in the late 1970s Craigie Horsefield travelled in pre-Solidarity Polance with a large format camera and “worked as if he were bearing witness to the slow declension of an era, along with a whole category of people soon to be swept away by the forces of change” (p. 24). The captions indicate the date of the making of the photograph next to the year of its full realization as a work, “in doing so he calls our attention to the importance of archival time in the consideration of the image”. Here the time of making functions as a shadow archive next to the flat panel of the large-scale print. There is further information here .
  • I have previously referred to Walid Raad and his fictional Collective “The Atlas Group”  whose aim is to research and document Lebanon’s contemporary history.  The collection brings together both ‘found’  and and invented ‘documents’ of everyday life in Lebanon.Included are ‘documents’ from the estate of a fictional Lebanese historian, Dr Fadl Fakbouri who took a photograph in Beiurut everytime he thought the civil was was over. This includes a film that “….. testifies to the lasting hope for peace and normality and the will to capture these hopeful moments in pictures, in the awareness of their transience”
  • A more recent example is the work of photographer Keith Roberts who developed a response to commercial photographic portraits, shot in Liverpool by the photographer Edward Chambre Hardman between 1923 and 1963. The Collection is held at Liverpool Central Library  . There is a video on the OCA site here where Keith discusses this work – for those who can access it 

Archive and Public Memory

  • This concerns interrogation of the photographic archive, “as a historical site that exists between evidence and document, public memory and private history” eg Andy Warhol’s grids of images taken from media reports  and Hans-Peter Feldmann’s project “9/12 Front Page (2001) ” a collection of material from different media sources concerning one momentous event “implicitly asks the viewer whether it can be treated as a work of art or merely a kind of public testimony.” (p.30)


I have only referred to a few of the artists included in the Exhibition, all of whom are fascinating and I became very absorbed in their work, some of which I may come back to later in Part 2.









4. Hal Foster (2004) “An Archival Impulse”

A brief note on the archive as a theme in contemporary art and an essay that I found useful reading in thinking around uses of Archives in artistic practice and how archives can provide inspiration for new work.

The art historian Hal Foster wrote an Essay in 2004 An Archival Impulse   considering  an practice he described as ‘an idiosyncratic probing into particular figures, objects, and events in modern art, philosophy and history’  (2004:03).  He described this as hardly new being active in both pre and post-war (WWII) and with a distinct character that could be considered a tendency in its own rightl How does it manifest? According to Foster

  • Archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present
  • They elaborate on the found image, object, and text
  • They favour the installation format to do so, frequently using its non-hierarchical spatiality to advantage.
  • They use familiar sources, drawn from the archives of mass culture, to ensure a legibility that can then be disturbed or detourné;, but they can be obscure, retrieved in a gesture of alternative knowledge or counter-memory.

In considering ‘obscure’ sources Foster notes that some of these archival samplings pushed postmodernist ‘complications’ of originality and authorship to an extreme and can be concerned more with an “anarchival impulse” – being drawn to obscure traces, ‘unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects’ that might offer points of departure again.

He also considers this work ‘archival’ as it not only draws on informal archives but produces them as well and in a way that ‘underscores the nature of all archival materials as found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private. This type of art also often uses a ‘quasi-archival’ logic to arrange materials and presents them in a similar architecture (Erik Kessel’s sculpture of photo albums in Arles comes very much to mind here as does Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence and Joan Fontcuberta’s exhibition of curiosities.)

Foster comments that archival art is rarely cynical in its intent, but wanting to engage the viewer and he provides interesting examples, including the work of Thomas Hirschhorn    (one of whose pieces was inspired by the spontaneous shrine produced at the spot in Paris where Princess Diana died) and Tacita Dean who based one of her short films Girl Stowaway (1994)  on a single photograph – of an Australian girl who, in 1928 stowed away on a ship bound for England. That one photograph set Dean off on her own journey through time, place and history and is mentioned here in an interview with Simon Schama. Foster writes of Dean “In a sense her archival work is an allegory of archival work – as sometimes melancholic, often vertiginous, always incomplete” (2004:12) and I find this idea so appealing.

Returning to archival art and forming new connections with archival material, Foster views this as not only a will to collate traces of the past to see what might remain for the present but also an assumption that new orders of affective association may be proposed from working through anomic fragmentation[i].  He does acknowledge that sometimes this will to connect can’ betray a hint of paranoia’, projecting meaning where there may be none, that perhaps archival art may emerge from some sense of a failure of cultural memory.  Having written thought I suddenly thought again of Erik Kessels and the photo albums – private archives disposed of as no longer important. However, at the end of the essay (2004:22) Foster speculates that  perhaps this paranoid dimension is the other side of its utopian ambition, a desire  – ‘to transform the no-place of the archive into the no-place of a utopia’.

I had another thought about this impulse towards ‘obscure’ sources, that perhaps this is connected with our urge to complete in terms of the Gestalt process – to join that which is apparently unconnected and create a whole – in this case, something creative and new.



[i] I think this process is evoked very well in a Tate paper discussing the role of the archive in artistic process through the work of Lucy Gunning  – the Archive, The Event and its Architecture.



Foster, H (2004) An Archival Impulse in OCTOBER 110, Fall 2004, pp. 3-22 MIT Press

(Accessed 11 October 2016)





Jacques Derrida (1995)”Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”

Jacques Derrida (1995) – Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression







(The Tower of Babel
by Abel Grimmer, 1595 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

What is “Archive Fever”, what is the archival impulse and why does Jacques Derrida make this connection with Freudian analysis? This particular work is not suggested reading in the Module Handbook but I felt I had to read it because it is mentioned so often by other writers on photography and the archive. In these summary notes I will concentrate upon concepts that made particular sense to me, given that I will be writing later about my personal archive of letters, documents and photographs and the memories they hold for me – objects and memories that have contributed to my own sense of self.

Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995)  is the title given to  a published lecture (translated from the French) given by Jacques Derrida at a weekend Conference Memory – The Question of Archive  in June 1994. The Conference emerged from the Freud Museum’s fund-raising campaign and was held at Somerset House, London.










(Mike Quinn [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Derrida delivered his  lecture (entitled the Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression) on the Saturday afternoon in what was described as ‘a truly memorable tour de force’  according to the Conference Report , engaging his audience ‘in a scintillating play of reflections around the idea of a historical record’ for three and a half hours. To me, as reader, this paper was convoluted, complex and difficult to follow.  I have recently reminded myself, though, that it probably made much more sense to his audience who were likely to be well-acquainted with both Derrida’s ideas and previous works alongside those of Sigmund Freud.

The essay is mainly concerned with the notion of the archive in Freud’s works but also touches upon electronic media; the role of inscription technology in the psyche and in the archives; Freud’s ‘magic tablet’; circumcision as metaphor and inscription and also whether psychoanalysis is a Jewish science.

Derrida begins by looking at the term ‘archive’ – ‘arkhe’, commencement of a thing, primacy in time, and the Greek ‘arkheion’ residence of the magistrate and the place where official documents were filed. “The archons are first of all the documents’ guardians”(1995: 9) who ensure their security and have the power to interpret the archives. It is in this ‘house arrest’ that archive takes place (I take this as the ‘act’ of archiving) and the ‘dwelling’ marks this passage from the private to the public although not from the secret (private) to the non-secret (public).  Derrida comments that this also happens as Freud’s last house becomes a museum, passing from one institution to another (1995:10). He refers to at least three these that have a common trait concerning ‘the impression left by the Freudian signature on its own archive on the concept of the archive and of archivization, that is to say also, inversely and as an indirect consequence, on historiography.’ At a basic level I take this to mean that whatever is in the archive comprises evidential memory pre-shaped by Freud and his family’s choices as to what should be destroyed and what should be retained to maintain his reputation and keep his teachings alive, plus what should be seen/unseen. These choices would, then, be further shaped by those who have maintained and will maintain and expand  the archive in the future. This site was helpful in reminding me of this  .

If I relate this to my own ‘archive’ then I will be interpreting material that my family members and I chose to keep. For example, my father’s letters to me, from Egypt, were kept and I took them with me when I married and left home.  After my parents’ deaths I found no letters that either of them had written to each other during that period of time. I added photographs and letters to my own archive and these included material that my mother had retained from her mother’s personal effects. I have continued this work of gathering together by searching for information about the immediate post-war years both in this country and in Egypt. In 2005 I visited Egypt, added further impressions of the country, felt an empathic connection with my father, and took my own photographs.

Continuing along similar lines of thought Derrida connects the archive (Freud’s) with the death drive ‘which is anarchivic (resists and subverts the archive) , or archiviolithic and threatens every archival desire – le mal d’archive, archive fever  (1995:14). The archive will never be either memory or anamnesis (having the ability to recall past events)  as spontaneous, alive and internal experience . It is hypnomesic – impairs memory (1995:12) .  the technical structure of the archive also determines the structure of the archivable content and the archivization produces as much as it records the event. Derrida uses the example of e-mail – stating that psychoanalysis would not have been what it was if such had existed because electronic mail is moving towards transforming public and private space and the limit between the private, the secret (private or public) and the public of the phenomenal (1995:17).  He then moves on to thinking more about the structure, and uses the notion of the printer to link the theory of psychoanalysis (including memory) with a theory of the archive. This links back with Freud’s concept of a ‘mystic pad’.  [i]

With the thought of the graphic mark, repetition and printing, Derrida links ‘inscription’  with circumcision, which leaves the trace of the incision directly on the skins – ‘more than one skin at more than one age’ (1995:19) the layers of skin as sedimented archives. In appearance this is a private inscription. “To which archive does it belong – that of Sigmund Freud? That of the psychoanalytic institution or science? Where does one draw the limit”   (1995:19). Derrida proposes another example. On the day of his 35th Birthday Freud was handed the Bible he had studied in his youth which his father, Yakob Freud, restored to , with a new leather, binding as a gift.  This appeared with a new translation in a book on Freud by the Jeweish Historian Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi  (1932-2009)expected to give his own lecture later) and Derrida states that the book left a strong impression on him that accompanied the preparation of his lecture.  Derrida was interested in Yerushalmi’s attempts to analyse Freud’s practice alongside Freud’s relationship to his Jewish heritage and the question as to whether genetically or structurally psychoanalysis is really a Jewish science, given that Freud refuted the influence of his heritage. (1965:28).

Derrida examines three meanings which layer with each other in the word and phrase ‘impression’ and ‘Freudian impression’ and their relationship to ‘memory’ “that objectivizable storage called the archive” (1995:22)

  • Scriptural or typographic – There has to be a substrate for the mark/impression to be left there. Can one imagine an archive without a foundation?
  • Neither Freud nor ourselves (those present at the lecture) have managed to form a concept of ‘archive’. We only have a series of impressions. Whilst Freudian psychoanalysis proposes a theory of the archive the concept of the archive must inevitably carry within itself an ‘unknowable’ weight.
  • The third meaning concerns the impression left by Sigmund Freud – impressions made upon him by birth; circumcision; faith; his culture and his culture’s history; interactions with others; the impression that he has made upon others; the history of history

He believes that whilst the notion of the archive points towards the past it should also question the coming of the future. If we imagine ‘a project of general archivology’ it would have to either include psychoanalysis or place itself under the critical authority of psychoanalysis.

My understanding of this is that the ‘archive’ cannot be objective in its gathering of evidence. Its very structure is created by those who have been moulded through their own ‘culture’, history and biology. That culture includes what Freud termed trans-generational memory or archive – the memory of cultural experiences (cf Simon Schama (2004)  Landscape and Memory).  An archive produces as well as records – it creates collections of material, choices are made as to what should be retained/maintained/ disposed of. I can apply this to my own personal archive as well as an institutional one. I can, of course, also apply this to my own memory of events  that structure within my brain that stores impressions, thoughts, feelings, perceptions of events, so this must be taken into account.

I have found this both a fascinating and frustrating period of reading, attempting to follow Derrida’s convoluted thought processes whilst somehow absorbing ideas that are useful to me in carrying forward this question of archives. Somewhat late in the day I also discovered this blog post by Walker Sampson which particularly looks at the essay from the point of view of a practicing records manager of archivist.


[i]  At this point I felt compelled to discover more about Freud’s concept.  Musing on memory preservation Freud, thought of writing in a note book –but the sheet would soon be filled plus this ‘permanent’ trace might  lose value if the note becomes no longer interesting enough to be retained in ‘memory’ . An alternative would be chalk on slate – notes could be erased but the writing surface retained, but then there could not be a permanent trace. Freud then brings to mind a product of the time called a “Mystic Writing Pad” or Printator (still sold today as a children’s toy )

The writing on it vanishes and does not reappear and yet a trace is left on the bottom of the three layers –  If we imagine one hand writing upon the surface of the Mystic Writing-Pad while another periodically raises its covering sheet from the wax slab, we shall have a concrete representation of the way in which I tried to picture the functioning of the perceptual apparatus of our mind. (S. Freud, 1925:212)


Freud, S (1925) A Note upon the “Mystic Writing Pad” (1925) pp in  Freud, S (1963), General Psychological Theory, Chapter XIII, Macmillan Publishing Company, pp 207-212

Accessed on 6th October 2016