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  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.
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 ).
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 ). 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 http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Bazin-Ontology-Photographic-Image.pdf (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) A 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.