2011 – Album, Archive and Audience

The MacNeil Archive at Ryerson University

This era of relentlessly streaming media and constant interactivity can also be a time of isolation and a sense of disconnection from one’s self – a sense which often stirs a renewed interest in origins, identity and cultural or familial relationships. It is certainly a time in which this interest can be pursued using new tools, and in which new approaches can lead to new forms, particularly hybrid forms based on the rich possibilities that lie hidden in image collections, personal histories and actual or virtual albums.

In that sense, this is a very interesting time for archives, for educators and also for artists – a time in which advanced techniques of image tagging, indexing and searching make collections vastly more approachable, and a time in which the quest for relationship and cultural authentication – and even a new kind of digitally mediated nostalgia – makes archives, albums and personal image sites logical places in which to search for lost memories, find new perspectives, or form new content.

It’s in this context that I would like to present work from the archives and current practice of the four artists mentioned earlier. This is an opportunity to see how one artist’s archive has reached a new audience by being accessioned into a university collection, how two other individuals’ personal and family archives have been re-shaped as new works – one factual, one fictional – and how the fourth artist’s interest in image collections and digital searching tools has led to the re-framing and re-presentation of work long considered canonic.

Born in New York and educated in the Boston area, Wendy MacNeil studied painting and drawing in high school, and history and art history in university. She initially did graduate work in education, but her visual arts background led her into photography, through cross-enrolment in the Creative Photography program at MIT, which had been founded by Minor White following his departure from Rochester in the early 1960s. Within a year MacNeil found herself completely immersed in photography and by the end of that decade was also teaching, first at Abbott Academy, later at Wellesley College and then at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she also taught film and video.

She moved quickly away from the kind of symbolist photography White practiced, preferring to work with portrait, personal narrative and depiction of her subject’s environment. Her first book, documenting Boston’s historic Haymarket district, was published by the MIT Press in 1970, and during the next two decades MacNeil established herself as a photographer exploring the related themes of place, identity, culture and familial relationships, often across generations. Her interest in vernacular imagery and personal history, her formal and technical innovations and extensions of the traditional portrait format and her work in platinum/palladium are aspects of her creative output that have received particular attention.

Seen here are image groupings from “The Snapshot”, published by Aperture in 1974, from the group exhibition catalogue “The Portrait Extended” and from bodies of work that followed, often as portfolio projects: portraits of graduate students at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Eight Tenured Members of the Wellesley College Art Department, several series of hands – some with faces but most without – the 21 Fellows of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, the album pages projects, originally titled “An Intimate Landscape” but later, more simply, “Biographies”, and work from the “Father/Daughter” installation at the Photographic Resource Centre in Boston, which marked her last project in photography (1987-89) before she immersed herself fully in film.

Her archive remained in her closet for more than a decade. Following Ryerson’s development of a graduate program in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management in 2003 and its acquisition of the Black Star Collection in 2005, MacNeil began discussions with the School about placing the archive in the Mira Godard Study Centre, to be used as a teaching and exhibition resource, and it began to be formally acquired in 2007. Alana West, a graduate student in the PPCM program who is now a Curatorial Fellow at Eastman House in Rochester following a year as a Curatorial Intern at the Getty Museum, prepared the initial finding aid and accession list, and spent a year cataloguing and re-housing the work; she also curated the first new exhibition of MacNeil’s photographs since 1989, “Pictures for a Portrait”, which was shown in Toronto in the fall of 2008. It was West who found a body of work by this title in MacNeil’s archive – work which MacNeil herself had never exhibited or even discussed. In each of the following three years, MacNeil images were included in exhibitions produced as part of the annual Contact Festival events by students working under the direction of curator David Harris: “The Ephemeral Face”, 2009, “In Her Presence: Photographs by Women Photographers”, 2010, and “With Us at Every Age”, 2011. Other graduate students have written essays on MacNeil’s work: on the relation between her artistic practice and her teaching, on her visual structuring of family relationships, and most recently, on her strategies of representation of the body.

MacNeil felt she had lost her audience for this kind of work during the 1990s, but what is so striking about the new audience that now seems drawn to her imagery is the way in which certain kinds of media habits facilitate new discoveries. Students take it for granted that images exist in huge quantity, and are not in the least daunted by the task of searching through extensive collections – and in doing so, they have found new contexts, and new relevance, for images MacNeil herself discarded or rejected from exhibition projects. They automatically assume that images exist in relationship to other images, so have great interest in re-examining MacNeil’s experiments with constructed narratives, and they can re-interpret these narratives with great fluency and unexpected insight. And finally, they are happy to put their iPhones away and re-connect with the actual objects in the archive, many of which have a startling physical presence, especially for those whose primary orientation has been to screen-based media. So in this particular instance, placing work in an archive has connected it with a completely new – and very engaged – audience, in sharp contrast to the statement her dealer made when he sent back her work, claiming that unless she would change direction, he couldn’t sell her prints.

Of course the climate has changed in other ways as well, and some of the issues that were first explored in The Snapshot and The Portrait Extended are now being re-explored a generation later in books such as these (illustrate).

The notion of an archive as source material for personal exploration can lead in many directions, and in some ways the work of Pierre Tremblay provides an interesting counter-narrative to MacNeil’s: here we see a video artist moving back to photography, and re-examining a personal archive as source material for new work.

Tremblay was born in Quebec, and following studies in graphic design and photography in both Quebec and Ontario moved first to the US and later to France, where he completed graduate studies in The Art and Technology of the Image at the University of Paris. He remained in France for the next ten years, working as a media developer and designer for Bayard Presse while developing a career as an artist and video maker. In the 1990s he began a project involving photography, animation, graphics programming and video, both single and multi-channel, which he titled “Portraits in a Sentence” – a project which has some intriguing parallels to the work in MacNeil’s “Biographies”.

Tremblay moved back to Canada in the mid-1990s and now teaches Visual Studies and Documentary Media in the School of Image Arts at Ryerson.
His creative preoccupation since arriving at Ryerson has primarily been with short, multi-screen and multi-channel video works, but in 2010-2011 he completed two new projects, quite differently composed; what is particularly striking about these is the way in which they draw entirely from archival material, re-purposed to startling effect.

In February 2011 he completed “Lumières de Nunavut”, animated from still images downloaded, indexed and archived from an Environment Canada website which transmits weather data, along with webcam frame grabs of the tiny Arctic village of Kimmirut, every fifteen minutes. The film forms part of a collaborative project based on interactive systems, image archiving and data tagging programs and searchable databases, and will shortly be posted and viewable at www.nunavutlights.com.

In “300 Days of Indulgence: Negotiating With the Beyond”, Tremblay has taken material from a personal archive – a collection of family photographs and funeral card images which came into his possession when he was fourteen – and entirely remade it, without ever violating or losing its original meaning.

Intrigued with his family’s history, then largely unfamiliar, and sensing he might one day want to use the pictures, he had kept them, stored in the same box in which they were found. When his father passed away in 2007 and his mother’s memory began to fail soon thereafter, his curiosity to explore their past – to “connect the dots,” as he put it, by accurately aligning photographs with families – took on a new urgency. Through a series of progressive restructurings and interventions the pictures, originally memory objects in albums or funeral-card totems for negotiating a benign afterlife, became components of something entirely new. Family relationships are worked out through graphic alignment and thematic variation: the three trees you saw at the beginning of this talk represent the three main branches of Tremblay’s family. In the video and the photographic images, words and prayers are sometimes repeated but more often partially obscured or excised, as are names, visages, inscriptions and notations. Absent faces and eradicated words draw the viewer in, forcing a confrontation with personal memory: “Blocking the text,” says Tremblay, “makes you read what is left.”

So the images themselves are a kind of negotiation: “This work re-connects me with photography,” said Tremblay, “and also with my family. Most of them I never knew…. But by erasing some memories, you create your own new ones, in these imaginary spaces you try to fill up.”

Tremblay’s interest in archives and archival materials places him in a larger community of visual artists, educators and students now examining and using archives and collections in new ways. Finding themselves surrounded by social networks, discussion groups and posting sites, both undergraduate and graduate students have assembled, often without explicit intention, vast quantities of personal image files, and in an intriguing way this has made them more interested in, and more comfortable with, conventional image collections – with which they are willing to freely experiment.

Students bring a particular admixture of technical fluency and nostalgic yearning to these experiments, which they discuss with each other in forums on a global scale. Kimon Kaketsis, who has just completed his MA in the joint York/Ryerson program in Communication and Culture, is an interesting person to mention in this context: trained to straddle both analog and digital worlds, he is now fully immersed in both artistic production and scholarly practice. As a maker of images, he is concerned with extending the forms of the photographic portrait to better represent each subject’s complex and layered identity and presentation of self; as an investigator of cultural phenomena, he is actively writing on these same issues, where themes of identity, relationship culture and memory constantly emerge and re-emerge. These images were produced in connection with a recent conference and exhibition project undertaken by students in the Communication & Culture program, and were exhibited in Toronto in March. What is interesting about them is that the “stories” they tell are fictionalized, and the relationships created entirely after the fact: while they use vernacular images, snapshots, album pictures and personal archives as source material, the groupings created are entirely imaginary, and the implied narratives completely a-historical. These people never knew each other, despite what the photographs seem to assert, and Kaketsis is trying to understand and contextualize just what it is about personal album images that leads viewers to read them as authentic, even in a digital world. Kaketsis is also investigating the move back to analog tools – even digital simulations of analog tools, such as the Hipstamatic and the Poladroid, as another aspect of this particular search for authentication of memory through the making and collecting of images.

As a final variation on this particular theme I would like to briefly mention the group of artists who take canonic works – the canon is, after all, a form of archive as well — and subject them to new investigations and new treatments via image processing. The quest for an ideal image database is one thing; the deliberate application of technology to subvert the existing image is quite another, but no less interesting. Dafydd Hughes, currently completing his MFA in Documentary Media at Ryerson, is a media artist, composer and programmer who is fascinated with the interface between image and information, and extremely curious about what happens when different systems of reading and processing images are unleashed on works such as Robert Frank’s “The Americans”. He began by instructing Processing software to render Frank’s famous streetcar image as a series of lines, and more recently has set iPhoto’s face recognition program loose on Frank’s entire book. “Every Face in the Americans” is the result, which he has presented as a large-scale installation work, a series of details, an essay on technology and a thesis discussion. It has been extremely interesting to observe how this work draws people in, even those who may not have any particular interest in Frank, or even in photographic history.

If one considers all this – a renewed interest in vernacular imagery, the radical extension of portrait forms, the invention of new image systems and hybrids, and the renewed interest in albums, collections and archives driven by social networks and improved image storage and access technologies, we find not that we have come full circle, but that we are partway along a new arc, one in which image archives will continue to play a critical, and I would say even a central, role.

Presented at the Archives Association of Ontario Conference, June, 2011

I would like to express appreciation to the conference organizers, for the opportunity to participate in this year’s events. I also want to acknowledge the contributions of Wendy MacNeil, Pierre Tremblay, Kimon Kaketsis and Dafydd Hughes, who gave permission to present their work and generously shared both time and ideas; and I thank the Faculty of Communication & Design at Ryerson for travel support, as well as Jennifer Park in the School of Image Arts for the design and technical work that went into the visual part of this presentation.