collective memory

By | photography

When there was only “film” photography, as it is nowadays called, it was normal to have every good negative printed. Only the negatives that were no good, i.e. blurred, out of focus, completely black or transparent were not included with the prints that most people got from the photo shop. So almost every person, and certainly every family had their albums with annotated or anonymous pictures. Many had shoeboxes full of unsorted photographs. And there were the professional archives with still more. Many millions of tiny documents, mostly with the only intention of keeping memories alive of family and relatives, children, women and men in their daily surroundings, but mostly on holidays. But in this unimaginably big mass of images lies the collective memory of a people, of peoples, towns, countries, in fact the whole world.

Even when most of this material will never be seen by others, and in fact simply disappears from the face of the earth together with the people it depicts, there is a growing interest for the preservation of at least a selection of the photographic material that is available from various sources. These sources should cover both low culture and high culture for a broader insight. Cultural historians and sociologists (present and future) will be grateful for this. In many parts of the world institutions, museums, libraries and archives are active in the field of collecting and preserving our photographic heritage and a lot of good work in studying and analyzing has already been done.

With digital photography almost completely taking over amateur photography and large sections of professional and let’s say “art” photography, the print is not so self-evident anymore. Few people keep albums with prints; and the image, with all its historical/sociological/whatever importance, only exists in its virtual form. And when photo albums may survive, and may even go all the way from the fleamarket to the museum or archive, and thus be saved, the virtual image stored away on disks or in other ways practically invisible and inaccessible to others will disappear with its owner. This age might be a lot less well-documented photographically than the previous one in spite of the fact that everybody seems to be taking photographs. But where are the photographs?

the print – a valuable object

By | photography

When I was young I used to work in a photo archive. It was an archive with thousands of images of Dutch landscapes, windmills, national costumes, folklore, old buildings etc., etc., to which I had proudly contributed. All of these photographs were just “material” for publications by the tourist industry, and the photographers were paid very little. We used to charge only administrative and actual replacement costs to those customers who never returned the lent material after use. Some even had the nerve to send back an envelope with the cut-up prints, snippets and all, or otherwise spoilt photographs with paper pasted on, texts written on the back that showed up like relief on the front, as more signs of utter disrespect for the photographer’s work (and remember, I’m talking about the darkroom, not the computer). Captions reattached to the prints after use by means of a stapler, small creases or scratches were no real problem! “You can’t see that in printing.” When the stock was almost gone for very popular images (yes, you guessed right, the inevitable windmills, tulips – in black&white – and wooden shoes) we just ordered another batch from the photographer, who didn’t mind… When a particularly nice picture came by, it was more than once confiscated and pinned up to the wall. There were some with well-known photographer’s names.

Ed van der Elsken said to me once that he regretted he had disregarded the uniqueness, and indeed value, of his old (vintage) press prints from his Paris, old Amsterdam and Sweet Life periods. He had used them to create a unique intro to his exhibition at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum: by gluing them to the walls, the floor and the ceiling of the entrance hall. Very hip and contemporary at the time maybe, but what a pity in retrospect !!!

It is a strange thought that in fact, even the photographers themselves had to be taught the value of a lot of their old, and often forgotten prints. The scarcity of good (often vintage) prints, not caused by limited editions, but simple lack of interest in those days, has not escaped the attention of the collectors. They already know that a work of art “signed all over” needn’t necessarily be signed to be collectible.