Photography and the Archive

By Brittain, David | Afterimage, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

Photography and the Archive


Brittain, David, Afterimage


This issue is devoted to photography and the archive, a topic that has been of particular interest since the 1980s when commentators began to analyze the dynamic between institutionalized power and the photograph. Chief among these theorists of the archive was Michel Foucault. In his influential 1969 essay, "The Archaeology of Knowledge," Foucault made the distinction between accessing the archive and applying a method he described as archaeological. He argued that to take an archaeological approach was to aspire to expose the very conditions that sustained an archive. That includes the structures and systems that enable the archive to exist. David Bate rereads this essay and describes its formative nature. More interestingly, Bate puts Foucault's theory of archival archaeology into practice--taking photography itself as an archive--to suggest how an archaeological approach might remap our understanding of photography, photographic practice, and photographic histories.

One of my intentions with this issue is to enable a cross-Atlantic dialogue by bringing together writers and artists from both the United Kingdom, where I am based, and the United States, home of Afterimage. Each contributor was asked to address the theme within a contemporary context. The artists' magazine is emerging as an important precedent to the more innovative forms of digital publishing. As we know, such magazines traditionally live a risky and marginalized existence, but can prove their cultural worth years later as repositories of documents from the histories they sought to chronicle. In the late 1970s, the artists' magazine High Performance documented the developing field of performance art, publishing photographs of many ephemeral events. Stephen Perkins describes the magazine's value as a unique photographic archive. With each passing year, it seems, the artists' magazine FILE reaffirms its contemporary relevance. Founded the same year that IJFE died, FILE began as an irreverent forum for the nascent mail art movement and rapidly evolved into a repository of the activities of its founders, General Idea. My interview with one of the artist/co-founders, AA Bronson, reveals the roots of FILE and why some commentators have identified it with media jamming.

In 2003, an amazing archive of images was discovered at the Visual Studies Workshop. It became known as the Selle Collection after the man who employed a team of street photographers in San Francisco between the 1930s and the 1970s. Recently this material became a resource for both historians and artists. Christopher Burnett describes three responses to this archive--estimated to comprise over one million images--and speculates on the role of digital technology in addressing the challenges of working with such huge volumes of visual material.

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israeli writer Ariella Azoulay has created two exhibitions of press photographs aimed at making visible her government's role in the occupation. "Act of State" (staged this year to mark the anniversary) aimed--and succeeded--at going beyond a photo-history of the occupation to explore the political functions of photography. …

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