Notes on Readings

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




Allan Sekula “The Body and the Archive” (1986)


Allan Sekula  was an American photographer, writer, filmmaker and critic and I remember seeing his work at the Prix Pictet Exhibition (Theme of ‘Consumption’) at the V&A  in 2014. He  was short-listed  for his series Fish Story (1989-92)  which explored the fishing industry.

Given that he used his skills to critique contemporary late capitalism, I would, therefore,  expect him to concentrate on the repressive aspects of uses of photography in archives and classsifications in criminality. He links photography with policing early in the essay referring to the fact that Robert Peel, regarded as the father of the modern British police, was a major collector and trustee of the National Gallery (founded in 1824). Peel established the Metropolitan Police Force for London in 1829 and Sekula notes that during the 1820s and 30s there had been a ‘spate of governmental inquiries and legislation designed to professionalize and standardize police and penal procedures’. (1986:4) and the potential for a new juridical photographic realism was widely recognized in the 1840s.

Photography was seen as a ‘threat’ to Art in being able to provide an indexical truth ‘rather than textual inventory.  The photographic portrait had the facility to go beyond the traditional function of a portrait, “that of providing for the ceremonial presentation of the bourgeois self”, subverting its inherent privileges, and venture into deviance and social pathology, such as criminal identity photographs and typologies of criminals as well as providing a socially ameliorative effect through enabling poor people to have a likeness of an absent member in addition to seeing portraits of ‘moral exemplars’.  Sekula refers to Marcus Aurelius Root who, in the USA , applauded these functions and “……ends up with the photographic extension of that exemplary utilitarian social machine The Panopticon”(1986:10) as proposed by Jeremy Bentham in 1787, so that every portrait takes its place within a social and moral hierarchy. In some respects it reminded me of the 1960s Monty Python Sketch as seen here .

Moving on from this, Sekula writes of a “generalized, inclusive archive, a shadow archive that encompasses an entire social terrain while positioning individuals within that terrain”  (ibid) providing a “single hermeneutic paradigm” that had two “tightly entwined branches physiognomy and phrenology” that had enormous prestige and popularity, particularly in the United States. There follows a summary of how these branches developed, with photographic archives becoming ‘central to a bewildering range of empirical disciplines, ranging from art history to military intelligence (1986:59).

The essay becomes most interesting to me from p. 58 when he begins to investigate ways in which photographic modernist practice began to, consciously or unconsciously, resist or subvert this model of the archive – an entity existing beyond individual control. Mentioning August Sander, Edward Stieglitz and Edward Weston he then looks in more detail at Walker Evans’s approach and his book sequences, particularly American Photographs (1938)  creating connections between individuals and social contexts and stressing the difference between his documentary style and that of a ‘literal document’. Below is an extract from a transcript of an interview with Paul Cummings in 1971, on the site “Archives of American Art”  : Evans is referring to his work having been in an Exhibition

WALKER EVANS: No, it wasn’t that so much. Although that is important to any artist. But this was particularly important because, as I say, more than I realized it established the documentary style as art in photography. For the first time it was influential, you see. The Museum is a very influential place.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Right. You refer to the “documentary style.” How do you define that?

WALKER EVANS: It’s a very important matter. I use the word “style” particularly because in talking about it many people say “documentary photograph.” Well, literally a documentary photograph is a police report of a dead body or an automobile accident or something like that. But the style of detachment and record is another matter. That applied to the world around us is what I do with the camera, what I want to see done with the camera.

The whole interview is very interesting, giving a real sense of Evan’s individual approach to photography and his determination to do whatever he wished to create the image he envisaged. There was obviously more than one interview in 1971 where Evans discussed his view as ASX reproduce another interview here  .

Sekula had earlier written about Galton’s composites. Francis Galton spent much time in combining photographs of different subjects to test if there was a recognizable criminal type, ‘sick’ type or ‘racial’ type. Later photographers had utilised this approach e.g. Nancy Burson who has produced many computerized composites . Sekula relates her work to that of Galton earlier in the Century and is highly critical, “For an artist or critic to resurrect the methods of bio-social typology without once acknowledging the historical context and consequences of these procedures is naive at best and cynical at worst” (1986:62). However, he is more positive on the political work of Martha Rosler  and the work she produced in the 1970s in film and video although I’m also thinking here of  The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

Further thoughts

Sekula certainly provides plentiful evidence to support his viewpoint on the repressive use of photography and I think this is an interesting standpoint, given that he wrote this essay 30 years ago.  I’m assuming that from his point of view the repressive aspects were worse than any positive effects and I’m minded here of drones.  When their uses in warfare became known I thought were pernicious machines whose mode of use made killing people seem almost a game, given that their controllers were so many miles away from any ‘action’. I’ve noticed recently though that publicity is also being given to positive uses in finding missing people, exploring difficult to reach terrain etc. The technique of creating digital composites has also been used to visualize the ageing of those who have gone missing, particularly children.


Sekula, A (1986) The Body and the Archive in October, vol 39 (Winter, 1986, pp3-64, MIT Press



Notes on Readings – Introduction


In general, archives consist of records that have been selected for permanent or long-term preservation on grounds of their enduring cultural, historical, or evidentiary value. Archival records are normally unpublished and almost always unique, unlike books or magazines for which many identical copies exist. This means that archives are quite distinct from libraries with regard to their functions and organization, although archival collections can often be found within library buildings

I have to admit that I became immersed in reading about archives – too immersed really and so it was hard to retrace my steps back to the present. Pre-internet I would have read much less I think, having to buy books or access them through the library. Now I can access information, including archives, at my fingertips and I am overwhelmed with the plethora of information available n the Internet.  Just as Erik Kessels  represented the avalanche of photographs uploaded to Flickr during 24 hours, interdisciplinary artist Michael Mandiberg  represented the immensity of information contained on online Wikipedia.  His work “traces the lines of political and symbolic power online, working on the internet in order to comment on and or intercede in the real and poetic flows of information”. Mandiberg wrote software that analyses the content of the English-language Wikipedia database and relayed this to print. This resulted in 7600 volumes which were then uploaded to for print on demand. There was an Exhibition at Denny Gallery , comprising a performance of the upload to and an exhibition of  a selection of volumes from the project.

the point was made that once a volume is printed it is already out of date because the contents of Wikipedia are constantly revised and updated

Even so, when the word ‘archives’ is mentioned, my immediate thoughts are of long dusty corridors; layers of shelves with dusty old papyrus scrolls and manuscripts.  I imagine long-held secrets hidden away from view and known to only a few. Knowledge is power and power is knowledge. My romantic vision due to so many books and films, such as the Name of the Rose etc. History can teach us so much and we hang on to its evidence even though we don’t seem to put the learning into practice. When I was at school history was all about Kings Queens and battles fought. I accepted this as facts not realising then that history books are interpretations of facts, in fact they may sometimes owe more to fantasy.  It was only after I left school and studied social and economic history that I learned more about the how and why events happened as they did and learned to look for the bias and the context of the writer.

I have in mind a particular topic for my Assignment and so I’ve attempted to focus my summary notes on what might be pertinent to this, sometimes successful and sometimes less so. I’ll return to this when I reflect on the completed Assignment.