Introduction to Archival Photography: from Birth to Postmodernism

From the encyclopaedias of the Enlightenment Age to the metanarratives of Postmodernism: an introduction to the language of photographic archives.

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Introduction to Archival Photography: from Birth to Postmodernism

From the beginning of the history of photography, the concept of archives has been inherent in the language of photography itself: because of its replicable nature and its capacity for serial organization, the photographic medium was the perfect instrument to archiving and collecting.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, we could see the development of archival theories regarding classification systems, typical of a technological revolution society: the practices of archiving and photography are the cognitive paradigms of the Age of late Enlightenment.

In 1888 the British Journal of Photography issued an open call for the creation of a huge historical photographic archive that would be able to witness and preserve the History and histories of the new century.

In the Enlightenment tradition, the archive is understood as an entity with a unique or similar origin: a kind of archaeology of knowledge that guide researchers in the interpretation of History and their disciplines, thus conditioning their opinion. The archivist’s position was adherent to the sources and did not involve conceptual contrast with them.

In this period the archives stood for values such as: naturalness, objectivity, authenticity and reliability.

Photographs had the dual role of bearers of truth on the one hand and repositories of historical memory on the other.

Archives has the role of documentation and preservation in various technical and scientific fields throughout the history of photography and are still used for this practical purpose today.

Photographic archives generally consist of a large quantity of images (negatives, positives, daguerreotypes, salt papers, slides, etc.) made by a single author or by different authors. The images are sorted according to different criteria developed either by the author or the institution that preserves it.

Traditionally, research in the photographic archives must answer several questions, such as:

  1. The authorship of the image.
  2. The time of making.
  3. The technical value and quality.
  4. The uniqueness and circulation.
  5. The historical and documentary value.
  6. The state of preservation.
  7. The copyright.

Once these criteria have been identified, images can be categorized and placed within archives and can be made available to the scientific community.

This type of application with encyclopaedic manners is still widely used and is regulated by a system of rules governing the creation and preservation of photographic archives.

The photographic archive sparked great interest in the visual arts with the advent of Postmodernism.

Zygmund Bauman, in Liquid Modernity, dedicated a focus on the topic by describing the evolution of photographic archives in practical and conceptual terms. If in the period ante-Postmodernism, and in some ways also today, scientists were limited to conducting research adhering as closely as possible to the sources, after the conceptual space of the archive is expanded and challenged starting with the role of the archivist himself.

Terry Cook describes in his article “Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of the Archive” the role of Postmodernism in the photographic archives and how it has influenced: the narrative nature of postmodernism pushes to doubt and criticize all that is seen as monolithic or postulated knowledge and is marked by all that is contradictory, paradoxical and even ironic even to the point of eliminating rational logic from discourse.

In the Postmodern visual arts, the photographic archives take on a connotation of re-contextualization of individual images (called Archival Turn): starting with each photograph, the grammar of narrative is rewritten and new and are reached infinite narrative possibilities.

The archive gets rid of its original construction to re-construct itself with new terms and new signifiers, generating a new kind of language called “metanarrative”.

In this new vision of archival language, each image is composed of unconscious, social or personal constructions of the author and the reference environment. The postmodern archivist must therefore take all these elements into consideration because images are no longer static but dynamic and he or she must become a storyteller rather than a researcher.

The archive becomes as a centre of interpretation capable of generating a reality with multiple layers of meaning and opens the birth of the archival science, a science that studies the characteristics of documents or images in their social and cultural context and how they were created.

We can finally see the fundamental shift that converges technical-scientific research with artistic research: the shift from asking in front of an image the “why was created” instead of “what” or “how.”

Milestones of Postmodern archivism are: narrative context and its metanarratives, social memory, and image fluidity.

These elements go to define the new language of archival photography within contemporary visual arts.