Fontcuberta begins his essay Archive Noises (p.169) with a pair of dialectically opposed terms – documentation + experimentation; memory + forgetting – which can be traced back to the original 1839 presentation of the daguerrotype to the French academies of the arts and the sciences. Fontcuberta’s essay will mainly be concerned with the second of these – memory + forgetting – but almost immediately points the reader back to an earlier section of the book – Documentary Fictions (pp.104-111) – and the quote from Ann Tronche which opens it – ‘what defines our most recent modernity is often an image which declares itself to be an image of an image‘ (pp.105-6) – and which he then repeats here (p.170); the quote is seen by Fontcuberta as ‘prioritising the archive as a place of experience.‘ And of course, this is what we’re looking at in this section of the module.
‘Institutionalised history is a corset that shapes memory but at the cost of constricting the experience of the present and the future. This being so, the first duty of the historian is to de-institutionalise history, to deconsecrate it – in short, to strip it of authoritarian discourse.’ – p.172
JF begins by examining the idea that ‘the archive’ is one of the mechanisms used by society to structure history and so control our relationship with both the collective past and the way that this determines the present and our future. The remainder of the essay looks at the ways in which artists such as Joachim Schmid make attempts to loosen the history’s stays, working with the contents of impromptu archives made up of vernacular photographs discovered on the street and in junk shops.
To do this JF goes on to look at two, early bodies of work by Schmid, both of which address what can be done with the great unexploited backlog of photographs that was out there at the turn of the century. Masterworks of Photographic Art addresses the growing academicisation involved in creating a photographic canon. Statiks break up pictures with the same subject into strips which are then combined to create something much more abstract.
A quote from Schmid sums up his position neatly: ‘I think that basically everything in the world has now been photographed in every possible way […] It’s not so much the production of photographs which needs to concern us, but the use of them.’
Marking the 150th anniversary of photography, Schmid (and Fricke) put together a series of 20 anonymous pictures which could have been previously unknown pictures by ‘the masters of photographic art’. The ‘August Sander’ – Middle-Class Twins. 1924 (1989) – reproduced along with much discussion of Schmid’s earlier work, in Fontcuberta (181) is uncanny. I’d have been fooled, anyway. Other photographers impersonated included canonical favourites such as Eugene Atget, Cindy Sherman, Robert Frank Harry Callahan and David Hockney. Just brilliant!
This ties in well with Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s essay Canon Fodder – Authoring Eugène Atget (contained in 1991) and its deconstruction of the way Atget had been variously coopted by successive discourses and movements – surrealism, Berenice Abbott, Walter Benjamin, modernist criticism, MoMa and John Szarkowski, ideas around the construction of ‘authorship’ etc – and has become central to the creation of a critical and market concensus on who are the ‘great photographers’. This was the text for discussion in the Photography Reading Group a month ago.
Like the essay, Schmid’s series exposes how tricky it is to nail down a photograper’s unique ‘fingerprint’ or DNA. ‘Masterworks’ are available to anyone with a camera in the right place at the right time; recognition of an individual’s ‘mastery’ (and that is a very gendered term, isn’t it?) is also a matter of being in the right place at the right time – Eggleston dropping in on Szarkowski at MoMA with his portfolio, Berenice Abbot managing to acquire Atget’s catalogue after his death in 1926, Stephen Shore hanging out at Warhol’s factory. Or Schmid chancing on a ‘lost Sander’ in a flea market. This rather throws a cat among the pigeons of the much more hallowed art market…
It all links in to Marcel Duchamp’s idea that something is art because an artist says it is and puts it in a gallery. We all take photographs. Some of them are quite good. Unfortunately we may never be in the right place at the right time for someone to realise our own, unique genius…
‘The series Statics (1995–2003) is an artistic reply to the aggressive visual pollution and excess information in modern society. Media fall-out such as garbage photos, advertising leaflets, unsolicited mail, redundant books etc. was the raw material that was recycled. Using an office shredder, this existing (paper-based) information was sliced, turning information into meaningless matter. The resulting strips were gathered to create visual fields with specific tonalities and colours that reflect the original content.’ – artist’s site
The second series discussed in depth –Statics – is harder to characterise. It involves the destruction of typical photographs – sunsets, say – or printed material – such as billboard adverts or flyers – and then arranging the destroyed strips into something that resembles a de-tuned TV screen or possibly an abstract expressionist painting. Rather marvellously, one of the sources is a copy of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The resulting pictures are rather beautiful (and also have been used by Schmid as invitation cards for exhibitions of his other work.
JF ends his essay (180) by listing three things that Statics put into play: they expose how the archive is ‘boundless and ungraspable’; they ‘clarify the space between memory and forgetting’; and ‘they privilege intelligence and creativity over the accumulation of information‘. Earlier (176) he has made much of how – by destroying the banal photographs he has collected, but been unable to use elsewhere – Schmid is investigating ways that we can ‘balance respect for the ancient with the freedom to solve our problems now.’
As I write this (April, 2018) people in France are arguing about what should be done with the reconstruction of Notre Dame and it looks like the (traditionalist, right-wing, nationalist) people who want to put it back exactly as it was before the fire last week are winning. All this stuff matters: we need to set ourselves free from the past (a soupçon of post-Brexit Blitz Spirit, anyone? no, I thought not) if we are to make something new from the future…
Schmid’s series discussed in the essay are earlier than those examined in the following course book research point references. They will be subject of my next post and I will look at the third series discussed by JF – Archiv – there.
‘Optimists present this amnesia [about the Spanish Civil War] as a sign of democratic progress: we have turned the page in the book of history. However the, more critical voices see it rather as a failure of the country’s education system, and the difficulty of addressing a still painful past’
But finally, this quote from early in the essay (p.170) sent me back to my own archive to find some photos I took in August 2007 at the park in Kiev that contains the Babyn Yar holocaust site. It was a lovely summer’s afternoon, and families were playing on the grass, sitting in the shade of the trees and walking hand-in-hand along the paths. It all seemed peaceful and happy – a long way away from the horror of 1941. No one was paying much attention to the various memorials to the different groups of victims.
I took a series of pictures of a mother with a baby and an older daughter with the Jewish memorial’s huge minorah visible in the background.
As I did, I was aware of the same optimist/critic opposition playing out – on the one hand it was great that this scene of horror had been returned to being a place that people could enjoy and be alive in; on the other, did this mark an ignorance of what had happened here, or – far worse – a tacit approval of the antisemitism that is never that far away in eastern Europe. Fontcuberta’s work (and writing) is firmly rooted in the Franco dictatorship and its aftermath. His work seems playful and funny, but it is also deadly serious…
- Fontcuberta, J (2014) Pandora’s Camera – photogr@phy after photography trans. Thomson, G. MACK, London
- Schmid, J (2018-) Artist’s Site: http://www.lumpenfotografie.de/ (accessed 21/4/19)
- Solomon-Godeau, A. (1991) Photography at the dock University of Minnesota Press, Mineaopolis