Friday, 29 March 2013

Archiving: now is the time

Earlier this week, I trekked up to The Photographers' Gallery to watch/listen to a set of presentations and a panel discussion around the issue of 'the archive'.  The unvoiced questions on everyones' lips and some of the answers included the following (paraphrased and summarised for inclusion in this blog):

Q:  Do we need to think about organising our work into some sort of archive? 

A:  Yes.

Q:  Why should we do it?

A:  Several reasons, perhaps the most important is to ensure that after our deaths, we don't leave our loved ones with one hell of a mess (forgive the language).  Also, an organised life's work is much less likely to end up in a skip. 

Q:  When should we start?
A:  NOW.  It's got to be easier getting organised as you go along, rather than leaving it to a time consuming retrospective exercise.

Q:  How should we start?

A:  Get yourself some sort of system.  Find out how other people organise themselves.  Southam and Millington's Archive Research Project is going to be creating a website and sharing some case studies: look out for this!  However, there are things you can do NOW: Firstly, the basics.  If working from negatives: number your neg pages and corresponding contact sheets.  If scanning, or working digitally - have some sort of naming/numbering system that others will be able to follow.  Also, keep your documentation, your notes and diaries, encouraging letters/emails from friends, publishers - anyone - these could be of interest in the future.

Q:  How do we continue?

A:  Once you've got your system - stick with it.  Don't throw stuff away.  Keep your mistakes and successes.  These will be of interest to the researchers of the future.  Top tips from Susanna Brown of the V & A include:

  • Archive your material in the original chronological, working order.
  • Be tidy, orderly and consistent.
  • DO NOT EDIT your history.
  • Do not create a new system when trying to rationalise - find out what is out there and what will work for you and the holders of your collection in the future.
  • Talk to institutions before you die...  See if any of them are interested...

Additional tip from Mark Power:

  • As well as organising your work and scanning negatives, make sure that you print off actual physical copies of your best pictures.  Who knows if CDs and hard-drives are going to be readable in 100 years...  But a real, tactile, tangible print is going to be a thing of interest for ever (unless you burn your house down of course.)

Q: What do we do/can we do with our archive when we've shuffled off this mortal coil?

A:  This is a problem.  At the moment - there is NO coherent national strategy for the collection of photographic works.  Separate institutions, such as The V & A, Birmingham Library and The Tate are doing their bit - but it's not enough.  Importantly - there is not enough space to house everything and no funding to ensure archives can be looked after in suitable, controlled environments... 

However, all is not doom and gloom...  Jem Southam and Val Millington are carrying out a research project to see if they can come up with some answers.  They're working closely with individual photographers, including Daniel Meadows and Mark Power, and institutions that believe in photography...  The findings are going to be interesting...

p.s.  When thinking about the archive, the idea of 'value' pops up...  Bear the following in mind, value can be focused on the market, artistic, historical and research interest...  The chances are, it'll be other people who deem if our work is 'valuable' or not, but just in case it is, then best get it organised!

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