Part 5 project 2: The Archive

From the day of the invention of photography the inherent quality and capability of the photograph has been to make a representation of reality and this has been used to justify, normalise and perpetuate western economic, social and culture relationships. This usage has stretched from a pivotal contribution to the growth of colonialism and racial stereotyping through to the reinforcement of gender roles and differences in social class that define history, propaganda, advertising, mass popular culture all of which collide and collude to create our social reality.

The archive is essentially a wider collection of photographs with a common quality running throughout the population of images organised and used to provide context, information, evidence, meanings and explanations whether they be of an historic or contemporary nature. “The model of the archive, of the ensemble of images….exerts a basic influence on the characters of the truth” (Sekula, A. 1991)

This model of the archive becomes even more significant when we consider Sekula’s point that, “Archives are property of either individuals or institutions and their ownership may or may not coincide with authorship. One characteristic of photography is that authorship of individual images and the control and ownership of archives do not commonly reside in the same individual.” (Sekula, A. 1991)

Sekula goes on, “In an archive, the possibility of meaning is ‘liberated’ from the actual contingencies of use. But this liberation is also a loss, an abstraction from the complexity and richness of use, a loss of context.” (Sekula, A.1991). This Sekula believes is particularly problematic within the practice of the creation of the photo-book that is made entirely from archived photographs.

Many artists are now responding to the photography archive through exploring and challenging the context and meaning of these images. These archives include official archives held by public bodies for bureaucratic or historical purposes, family photograph albums, found or auctioned photographs.

Liz Wells quotes Jane Connarty on the importance of the archive in art practice, “the themes of history and memory have been central to cultural production and discourse through much of the 20th and into the 21st centuries. Photography, film and the archive are associated with the concept of memory, functioning as a surrogate, or virtual sites of remembrance, or as metaphors for the process of recalling the past. The experience of viewing archival photographic prints or film can have a seductive, even spellbinding effect in the viewer; their evoking a sense of time and nostalgia or conjuring fantasies of history. (Connarty and Lanyon 2006:7). (Wells, L. 2009:63)


Figure 1: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin taken from People in Trouble (2011)

I like the Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin collaboration People in Trouble the result of a commission by Belfast Exposed, originally founded in 1983 in response to the close and careful control of an archive containing over 14,000 contact sheets depicting British Military activities during the troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1960s and 70s. This photo archive established by UK authorities was a direct response to concerns over the behaviour of the British Military and the images themselves are a mixture of citizen, journalistic and official photographs. What the artists found most intriguing was how specific images from the archive were marked and labelled by a system of different coloured dots by the archivists.

Broomberg’s and Chanarin’s artistic response was to remove the dots in order to see what tiny round part of the image had been hidden beneath the randomly placed coloured dot. These tiny snippets of hidden image systematically and arbitrarily affected are re-imagined to give the photographs alternative dialogues and fiction.

This project highlights the control that photography and the process of archiving can exercise in creating and establishing a particular and seemingly natural version of reality. The artists describe their work in their own words, “Each of these fragments – composed by the random gesture of the archivist – offers up a self-contained universe all of its own; a small moment of desire or frustration or thwarted communication that is re-animated here after many years in darkness.”

To see this work visit:

I find this this concept of a hidden, lost, affected or manipulated interpretation of history and reality to be of real concern and interest. The politics and power relationships in making, acquiring, archiving and distributing images within economic, cultural and social structures I find quite disturbing.

Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunne taken from The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1996)

Other works of interest are The Fae Richards Photo Archive the collaborative outcome of artist Zoe Leonard and film-maker Cheryl Dunye. These photographs provide a narrative chronicling the life of the fictional character Fae Richards, an African-American actress born in the early 20th century through to her old age and involvement in the civil rights movement. Dunye attributes her photographic falsification of a life history to the lack of information recorded in real life

“The Watermelon Woman came from the real lack of any information about the lesbian and film history of African-American women. Since it wasn’t happening, I invented it.”

Through the use of photographic and archival conventions Leonard and Dunye successfully borrow from the lives of historical figures to create a believable narrative that explores questions about what is actually left out of history and it’s records.


Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin People in Trouble at the artists website (accessed 5/12/16) AT:

Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunne The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1996) (accessed 5/12/16) AT:

Sekula, A. ESSAY: Reading An Archive Photography between labour and capital (1991) – Taken from The Photography Reader Wells, L (2002) London: Routledge

Wells, L. Photography a critical introduction 4th ed.(2009) London: Routledge

List of images

Figure 1: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin taken from People in Trouble (2011) full details of access from bibliography above

Figure 2: Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunne taken from The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1996) full details of access from bibliography above

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