Updated: Jun 18, 2020
In her essay Mining The Archive, Excavating Identities, Kim Knoppers delves into the archives of commercial photography studios to uncover visual narratives that might otherwise be overlooked (Rastenberger and Sikking, 2018). Photography can make what was previously invisible, visible. The moon turns on its axis at the same speed it orbits the earth so the far side of the moon is never visible from earth. Lippershey patented the telescope in 1608, Draper photographed the moon in 1840 and the unmanned Russian spacecraft Luna 3 photographed the far side of the moon in 1959. Photography makes visible things, prior to its invention and advancement, we could not see.
Making the invisible visible applies to photography itself. How we see, how we are able, allowed, or made to see, and how we see this seeing or the unseen therein (Foster, 1988: ix). We are familiar with important photographers and their work but not with vernacular photography (Fig 1). The Museum of Modern Art defines vernacular photography as:
An umbrella term used to distinguish fine art photographs from those made by non-artists for a huge range of purposes, including commercial, scientific, forensic, governmental, and personal - MoMA
This extends to photography created by studio photographers commissioned to commemorate life’s milestones. The archives of these studios contain a visual history of groups of people that are not usually represented in galleries, Figure 2. In recent years there has been a growing interest in vernacular photography along with an acknowledgement of its social, historical, and artistic value. In 2018, the Walther Collection along with The Centre for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University and The Barnard Centre for Research on Women presented a two-day international symposium Imagining Everyday Life: Engagements with Vernacular Photography. The aim was to articulate the multiple definitions of vernacular photography within a newly expanded field of critical investigation - reconsidering the context and meaning of often overlooked photographic practices and tracing their specific social histories.
Curators, researchers, and archive owners collaborate to coherently exhibit the work and looking at it afresh having taken it out of its environment, attach a significance to it beyond the personal meaning it had in the private domain. This action comes with a responsibility to both the original context and the new storyline.
In writing about the relationship between power and the photograph, John Tagg in The Burden of Representation discusses photography’s use as evidence. In her project, The Innocents, Taryn Simon exposes photography’s role in helping to convict innocent men of crimes they did not commit (fig 3). ‘Photographs in the criminal justice system, and elsewhere, can turn fiction into fact’ (Simon, 2003).
The exhibiting of archives shows an alternative visual history and makes the work part of our collective memory. It is important to provide context when reinterpreting an archive, without it the archive has little meaning for the audience. The inclusion of research and descriptions of and discussions on the gathering of this all help to inform the audience about the curatorial choices made in creating the end result.
The circumstances under which archives come to light are varied, donated by the families of the photographers such as the Marubi family of Albania (fig 4) discovered on a kerbside awaiting collection by the bin men (Maryam Sahinyan of Istanbul) found stacked beneath a house (Richard Samuel Roberts of South Carolina, Figure 5) and rejected from a commercial photo lab in Boston (The Lenny Gottlieb Collection). One thing that many of these collections have in common is the exhibiting of them long after the photographers who created them had died.
Copyright lasts for the lifetime of the creator plus seventy years after their death. Copyright protects the tangible form of a creators works. But what of the rights of the subject? What about their personality rights? Everyone has some right as to how they are depicted. Most studio portraits are commissioned by the sitters, what happens then when these same photographs end up on a gallery wall? Should those involved in the production of an exhibition trace those represented in the photographs? As the original commissioners of the photographs what rights do they have when it comes to the re-contextualising of their likenesses? What of the subjects right to privacy and their right to determine what part of themselves is made public? (Schrijver, 2018).
Do curators have the right to make use of other people’s lives for material? Is the reframing of these archives acceptable when done with a curation mindset with the attitude that values sharing as part of how we gain insight? Is the sharing the most important aspect in all of this?
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Knoppers, K. (2018) ‘Mining the Archive, Excavating Identities’ in Rastenberger, A.K. and
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The Walther Collection, The Centre for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University, and The Barnard Centre for Research on Women. Imagining Everyday Life: Engagements with Vernacular Photography Press Release.
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Unknown photographer. (c 1945) Untitled. [Online]. Available at: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/141157?sov_referrer=art_term&art_term_id=18
Dinneen, D. (No date) Untitled. [Online]. Available at: http://dennisdinneenarchive.com/gallery
Simon, T. (2002) Larry Mayes, Scene of arrest, The Royal Inn, Gary, Indiana. The Innocents. [Online]. Available at: http://tarynsimon.com/works/innocents/#6.
Marubi, K. (n.d.) Self-portrait with wife. Dynasty Marubi. A Hundred Years of Albanian Studio Photography. [Online]. Available at: https://www.kimknoppers.nl/index.php/2016/09/exhibition-cahier-dynasty-marubi-a-hundred-years-of-albanian-studio-photography/
Roberts, R.S. (ca. 1920) Available at: https://www.sc.edu/uofsc/posts/2020/01/richard-samuel-roberts-a-new-likeness.php#.XpYZ4MhKhPZ