Reading an Archive –
Allan Sekula was an American writer, photographer, filmmaker, theorist, and critic. This text was published in The Photography Reader, itself an archive of 20th century writings on photographic theory. Sekula was generally interested in writing about large economic systems and “the imaginary and material geographies of the advanced capitalist world.” In this essay, Sekula tried to “understand something of the relationship between photographic culture and economic life.” He argues that archives are the property of the bourgeois who claim some objectivism yet perpetuate mystified ideas about photography as “high art” to exclude the people from its field. He says that to archive photography is to strip photos of their contexts, uses, and meaning. The liberates the photos to be used as the archiver wishes; they become “sovereign images.” The photos become more ambiguous, often purely aesthetic. As more ambiguous objects they are able to be propagated to a wider audience, serving a capitalistic function. Once stripped, they can be used for the archiver’s means. Common organizational themes of archives are historical presentations, purely aesthetic,
He argues also that photographs make claims to authority by claiming some objective historicism but are incorrectly read as a representation of the past rather than as an interpretation of the past.
He states “the institutional promotion of photography as a fine art serves to redeem technology by suggesting that subjectivity and the machine are easily compatible.” Are they? How do human subjectivities and machines interact? What do they produce?
Archive Fever (1995)
Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher particularly interested in analysis through destruction. This text considers how Freud approaches his own archive of theory. Derrida argues that in approaching this archive for edit, Freud’s action is inherently self-destructive. He calls this action the death drive. The death drive works to edit and remove from an archive, working silently, leaving no trace, or archive of its own. He argues that archives remove things from the sphere of memory. He argues that archiving is inherently self destructive.
Is the process of editing self-destructive? Is it always self destructive?
Against the Camera, For the Photographic Archive (1994)
Margarita Tupitsyn is a Russian scholar and independent curator. She details Russia’s relatively distant relationship to photography. In the late 1920’s/early 1930’s documentary photography was most used in Russia because the quick reproduction of images lent itself to the proletariat’s “urgent political agenda.” She quotes “in the USSR, photography is one of the weapons of the class struggle and of socialist construction.” She states that photographs try to “reflect Soviet reality in the most instantaneous and truthful way.”
Compared to Sekula’s argument that photography is the tool of the bourgeois, Tupitsyn argues for a view of photography as more democratic, rooted more in the proletariat. Can photography be a tool of both peoples?
Historical a priori and the Archive (1969)
Foucault was a French philosopher primarily interested in the relationship between power and knowledge. I found this text very difficult to understand. He speaks of the historical a priori, meaning the order underlying a given culture at a given historical moment. He says these rules cannot be exhaustively described and are not all of the rules of the society. The archive is compared to this, both collective, and not a total collection. It allows both survival and regular modification. He states that we must be outside an archive to define it because archives are constructed via our historical a priori which are assumed and thus invisible to us.
Finally, I repeat Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s quoted text from the beginning of Reading an Archive:
“The invention of photography. For whom? Against whom?”
Who does this tool most serve and who does it most harm? Do cameras shoot people or do people shoot people?