Unreal Nature

July 18, 2018

The Order Already Imposed

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:33 am

… photographs place us in someone else’s point of view.

This is from the essay ‘The FSA File: From Image to Story’ in Lincoln’s Smile and Other Enigmas by AlanTrachtenberg (2007):

The file is tangible: actual file cabinets, microfilm readers, card catalogs. It is public property, open to all in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. We are free to visit it, open its drawers, browse among its images and captions; free to request any picture that catches our fancy or fills a need. Preserved here is an unexampled record of social observations, of visual detail awaiting absorption and interpretation.

… Are all photographs vagrant images in search of a context, of readers prepared to write meanings across their face?

Vanderbilt conceived the file as a facilitator, a structure of convenience. His metaphors stress the instrumental relation of means to end: the file was the dictionary to “a forceful, colorful book,” “a stock room of parts” to “the assembled useful machine,” a menu to the “well-balanced meal.” The pictorial richness of the collection lies in “the astounding juxtapositions, the sensitive and subtle details, the significant backgrounds” — connotative features the file makes no effort to reduce to number and class.

[line break added] The file is blind, in short, to pictures; it recognizes only subjects, facts, data, assuming (or pretending, in Vanderbilt’s metaphors) that a detail in a photograph is indeed a transparent copy of a thing in the world, a veritable fact to be filed away, rather than an image within a larger image that may qualify, modify, contradict, or cancel its presumed status as “fact.”

[line break added] The archival file limits itself to this pretense to ease the extraction of exactly those troublesome and complicating connotative values, thus allowing for “infinite variation in combination of photographs and in approach by users.” Rather than predetermine combinations that constitute a finished whole, the file traffics in component parts.

To Vanderbilt, his design was a rationalized facility for storage and retrieval, a machine apparently intending no meanings of its own, no interpretations or ideology.

… Once retrieved and delivered, the image might serve any purpose. Delivery liberates the image from its categorical confinement. Mere datum in the file, [once back] in the world it becomes a picture to be read.

… The collection could have been organized into an unlimited variety of different subjects and subdividings. Vanderbilt admits as much. “There is no such thing as an ideal general sequence of subject matter.” He intended an open-ended, ever-changing structure.

… The most telling lesson to be learned in the process of recombining and reordering images is that rather than providing objective facts of time and place, photographs place us in someone else’s point of view.

… This fluid openness within the boundaries of its master story makes the file less a solution than an opportunity. Vanderbilt encourages us to repeat his own act of myth making, of finding or inventing lines of force and resistance, patterns of order among discrete images. The opportunity has its treacherous passages, and we need an abundance of skepticism about the order already imposed.

My most recent previous post from Trachtenberg’s book is here.




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