In the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures seeks to reappropriate what it has lost while simultaneously recording that loss. – Giorgio Agamben
Let us now Praise Famous Men
Many have revisited the Library of Congress’ FSA/OWI archive of Depression-era photographs. These images, produced through government agency quite miraculously transcend propaganda, and have become the material of an American identity. It is a defining and generative archive, ever more so as it is digitized, repeated and further disseminated.
There are lessons to be found in this archive containing an army of readily reanimated ghosts. These ghosts are sacred spirits to some, untouchable for what they represent. To ‘appropriate’ therefore becomes another assault on their memory, as if any previous incarnation had ever been free of appropriation. These photos are of Americans, and they represent those who go unnoticed, unrecognized and, um, unrepresented. They are us, or at least some idea that we have of ourselves, they belong to us because of the way that they came into our world, as photos, not as people. It is a record of what was already being lost to Americans even as it was being constructed, an American dream of self-determination, independence and freedom.
A photograph, pre-material, eventually finds expression through a specific photographic print, or transmission via computer.
Scale, a secondary concern, is completed within the expanded space that is the viewer’s experience, an experience that will always be more in the present than the photograph itself ever was or could be. The image is completed in our imagination much in the way that our eyes create our sense of three-dimensional space. Scale can sometimes be determined through a sense of urgency and history. There is this type of scale in these portraits of depression era poverty, as well as in the lens-less photographic print of bodies fixed onto the sidewalk and buildings by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, or the fixing of a prehistoric human hand on the wall of a cave.
There is great concern over the ‘authenticity’ of a photograph, this flighty, ghost-like image thing, which lives outside of its material boundaries. This ghost can be combined and contextualized and used for journalism, propaganda or art, for private or for public consumption, and even then still has a life outside of this fixing of use. Photographs become evermore reanimations, brought to life (or death) by its author and creating zombie havoc independent of any intentions of that author. Yet somehow there is always a concern about its relationship to proof, truth- or lie- telling, to something that somehow existed, in the past, which seems to make up for its lack of concretization of its own existence.
So, the photographic ghost has some kind of individuation over its material containers. Is it possible that the world has always been so haunted, and the development of photography has made it possible for these boundaries between life and death to become more permeable?
Color functions very similarly to the ghost behind the images of photography. Its history is fugitive, tied to objects and to technological developments. Where questions of truth are tied to our photographic ghost, quite the opposite can be said of color, despite scientific investigations. Like the ghost, it too seems to have strong relationships to light and chemicals in becoming visible.
There are traces of color in history, but for the most part color tends to escape, leaving only whatever it had been temporarily tied to.
Color seems to remain in a sort of potentially trauma-inducing state. It is preverbal, which hints at a potential of universality. However, the same use of color can carry extremely different cultural interpretations.
Strong color, even in a photograph, has an impact, something lived and experienced, but somehow still in conflict with the truth measure or reality check of a photographic act.
Color moves faster than theory – from natural objects (pigments from the earth) to pure fabrication back to just light of the computer screen- color is tied to physicality, to material natures, even though it has no material nature of its own. It can make the viewer an actor of gestures, in trying to name this and that – in trying to read what is being named. Color is a challenge to the status quo. Even when seemingly polite, contained and proper in its given structure, it still looks to make trouble.
The lens itself is an organizing structure, a tool to frame something and consider it in a different context. It can subjectify just as well as it can objectify. In photography, abstraction has been banished to the same netherworld as the originating capture. There never was any such thing as abstraction. But it is almost impossible to deny that there exists some sort of real originating thing to a photograph, at two levels: the indexical and the spectral. Indexical faith seems to persist, as does the belief that a brush stroke (after the making of it) is gestural, rather than a representation of a gesture. An abstract painting is already a contradiction, a fixing of something non-fixable, as in gesture.
Medium is often used to describe the material nature of an artwork: ‘silver gelatin print’ or ‘acrylic on canvas’ for example. I propose that the artist is the medium, materializing specters to varying degrees of recognition in material form.
There are now millions of photographs being added daily, often without much thought, to countless numbers of archives. Re-posting and repetition of photographs happens automatically; even the most lost, forgotten and un-looked-at snapshot is being constantly backed up and transferred. Archiving has become an automatic and natural process, eroding a section of delimitation between library and museum. Our mass archive is beginning to take on a 1:1 scale with Borges’ Library. A kind of echolalia has replaced gesture.
Is it possible that one of the most paradigmatic forms of cultural artifact for this ‘time’ is that of the archive? Roy Stryker’s FSA/OWI archive provides a pretty great study case.
This is an example of the heading on the tabs organizing the filing cabinets holding the handling prints of the FSA/OWI photo archive at the Library of Congress:
After regional arrangement
- · 14 – The Land–the background of civilization
- · 2 – Cities and Towns–as background
- · 3 – People–as such–without emphasis, excepting in the case of children, on their activity
- · 4 – Homes and Living Conditions
- · 52 – Transportation
- · 53-65 – Work–the economic basis of survival
- · 66-69 – Organized society–for security, justice, regulation, and assistance
- · 7 – War
- · 8-83 – Medicine and Health
- · 84-85 Religion
- · 86-88 – Intellectual and Creative Activity
- · 89-94 – Social and Personal Activity
and then further subcategories:
- 4 Homes and Living Conditions
- 41-43 Houses, rooms, furniture, people at home, visiting, hobbies
- 44-447 Life in tents, shacks, rooming houses, hobo jungles
- 448-46 Personal Care and habits, housework, cooking, eating, sewing, sleeping
- 47-48 Porches, yards, gardens, servants
How curious to try to categorize the subject matter of everyday life. In the case of this archive, geographical categories are at the top of the structure, with an idea of major categories under that with subcategories that tended to be tailored to the specific circumstances of everyday life of that geographical location. Nowadays, keywords help us navigate a digital catalog of the same images. What is everyday life? How could something not be everyday life? Perhaps we need a museum of everyday life? Somehow we are already building it in the process of living it.
James Agee writes in the introductory section of “Let us now Praise Famous Men,” his and Walker Evans’ epic collaborative study of three sharecropping families:
If I had explained myself clearly you would realize by now that through this non-“artistic” view, this effort to suspend or destroy imagination, there opens before consciousness, and within it, a universe luminous, spacious, incalculably rich and wonderful in each detail, as relaxed and natural to the human swimmer, and as full of glory, as his breathing: and that it is possible to capture and communicate this universe not so well by any means of art as through such open terms as I am trying it under.
In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger. It is that he exists, in actual being, as you do and as I do, and as no character of the imagination can possibly exist. His great weight, mystery, and dignity are in this fact. As for me, I can tell you of him only what I saw, only so accurately as in my terms I know how: and this in turn has its chief stature not in any ability of mine but in the fact that I too exist, not as a work of fiction, but as a human being.
Lisa Ruyter, December 2011