Wonders and Horrors
Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography — Verna Posever Curtis (Ed.)
Book Review by Martha Langford
Issue 67 Summer 2011
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Published by: Aperture
Two rather significant institutional names in photographic knowledge and production have cooperated to bring out this volume: the Aperture Foundation and the Library of Congress. The twenty-seven albums sumptuously illustrated and discussed in the book have been selected from the more than seven hundred albums in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, as well as from other archival divisions with albums in their holdings, including the Manuscript; Music; Rare Book and Special Collections; Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound; Geography and Map; Area Studies; and Science and Technology Divisions. Curator of Photography Verna Posever Curtis has not only assembled a remarkable collection, she has blazed a trail through her institution, reminding her readers of the insinuation of photography into almost every type of documentation and research, and allowing them to see the reciprocal influences of different disciplines in words and images. A huge brief, and thankfully Curtis had help from within and without. Her acknowledgements will turn many lonely archivists green with envy. Still, this is at root her project, one whose decisions and rationales are neither personal nor institutional, but a combination of both.
Following an introduction that stresses the object-ness of the photograph and the photographic album, Curtis divides her material under five main chapter headings and a conclusion. The distinction between headings is sometimes a bit vague: ‘Souvenirs and mementos’ distinguished from ‘memoirs’; ‘presentations’ from ‘documents’. The success of the groupings is their pacing of the book and creation of conversational groupings between objects. General readers will quickly see that Curtis’s notion of ‘album’ is broad, stretching from the private souvenir to the institutional record, and from the field researcher’s notebook to the artist’s maquette. Those trained up on the history of photography will recognize key figures, such as Edward S. Curtis, F. Holland Day, Dorothea Lange, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Phil Stern, W. Eugene Smith, Max Waldman, Duane Michals, and Jim Goldberg; some are already known for their books, others for iconic images. In some cases, the compiler is famous: in this role Frank Sinatra co-stars with Leni Riefenstahl. Or it might be the subject: a politician (Clare Boothe Luce); an adventure (the Harriman Expedition to Alaska); a city or a community (Pittsburgh; Color Town); or a war (too many to list). Every album in the book has been carefully chosen for its visual interest and back story; the objects and full-page excerpts are exquisitely reproduced; Curtis’s carefully researched and skilfully written essays make pleasurable reading. The Library of Congress has some amazing stuff, most donated, some confiscated, as were the Hitler Youth album and the XI Olympiade album, the latter compiled by Riefenstahl, possibly to appease her patron while she edited her monumental film.
The section entitled ‘Creative Process’ includes both the raw and the cooked: Jim Goldberg’s repurposing of a cheap hotel’s guest register as an early version of his ‘rich and poor of San Francisco’ project; Duane Michals’s portraits and musings compiled in post-bound and slipcased limited edition albums. Photographic researchers will know these objects, with the possible exception of Max Waldman’s photo essay on a Black community within segregated Miami; the pictures are good; their pairing and muscular full-bleed presentation, just as good. Across the board, Curtis’s selection is refreshing, reminding us of photography as the communicator of wonders and horrors. Wonders have a limited shelf life, as Alfred Hildebrand’s compilation of French Airships c.1910 brought home to me, whereas horrors, as embodied in the American Colony Photo Department, Jerusalem’s Locust Album, c.1915, are forever. The colonists were a community of Christian millenialists whose purpose in Palestine evolved from charitable works to the tourist trade. The invasion and devastation wreaked by a plague of locusts is documented in hand-tinted photographs, including before and after views of orchards and gardens, not so still lifes of the insects trying to get through a window, and some remarkable ‘portraits’ of the creatures. They are so beautiful, as individual members of a voracious mob can be.
The title of this book is a puzzle. No argument of any substance is put forward about the nature of memory and its photographic expression. ‘Preserving memory is the key motivator for any album maker,’ writes Curtis, leading off her essay on Michals’s Album #3. Is the book title strategic? Perhaps, because calling this collection ‘photographic memory’ places it beyond the reach of historical judgment; the album remains raw material, point-of-view, unfinished business, off the hooks of accuracy and ethics. This free-past approach to memory underpins some of Curtis’s writing, especially when the theme of the album or context of its making is controversial. In her presentation of the Bureau of Prisons album, compiled in the Philippines, its history of subjugation and administration is simply and objectively stated, while comments arising from the album, its uncomfortable truths, are given voice in a more speculative, questioning tone: what should one suppose from looking at mug shots of incarcerated citizens of the Philippines in an album mainly devoted to progress shots of the expansion and modernization of the country’s prisons under United States occupation? Posed from the subject-position of the occupier (Otherness assumed), the author’s questions are purely rhetorical: ‘What did they really do? Why and how were they sentenced, and what became of them?’ One might imagine a modern version of this album being compiled at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, but if this parallel struck the author, she has left it to others to draw the lines. Categorizing her material as memory, not history, allows this employee of the United States government to navigate the shoals of officialdom and difficult knowledge – it allows her to feature the contemporary scrapbook art of Paolo Ventura and Stephen Dupont. In Ventura’s work, fictionalized postmemories of Fascistera Italy are compiled with imitations of an iconic American Civil War image, or, as in Polaroids 2008-09, his pictures of Italian circus performers are mixed up with recent images of war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq. Embedded with a United States Marine Corps unit serving in Afghanistan, Dupont produced Polaroid portraits of twenty-nine members of Weapons Platoon, annotated with the soldiers’ explanations of their military vocation, which he compiled with snapshots, mementos, and his own questioning comments.
The book’s final chapter, written by conservators Alan Haley and Adrienne Lundgren, is concerned with the preservation of photographic albums. Their knowledge, framed as advice, encourages readers to believe that these fragile photographic objects will survive. Their unanswered questions will also continue to be posed.
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