Archive and Photographs
It is an interesting topic that I recently encountered a few months ago when my father was constantly telling me if I know someone who is interested in buying old photographs of my great grandfather.
I have collaborated with ‘Malta Image Preservation Archive’ and from there all of my grandfather’s work is being kept safe and secure with great conditions.
About the photographer:
Emmanuele Sciortino, born in 1882 and died in 1957, was active in photography between 1925 and 1940. Renowned for his work shooting church statues and feasts commissioned by the Church, he was also known to have a very active practice in Hamrun shooting portraits in a makeshift studio in his garden. He used to photograph sailors and servicemen when they came to Malta so that they could have a portrait of themselves to send back home to their loved ones, as well as images of Maltese wives who had their husbands working abroad.
Looking at these glass negatives, it is interesting to see how the people used to wear, how they pose and you can have the feel of the culture as well at that time. If I see a portrait image, in my head, I am creating a story in my head about that random person who came to be photographed by my grandfather. It is a humorous way on how to interact with a photograph.
However, when interacting with old photos of dead relatives whom you never met in your life can be somewhat different. Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida reflects on this matter by presenting his young mother’s photograph. He is frustrated by the fact that he does not recognise his mother in the image.
After his mother died he went through photographs of her, probably in an album. None of the images seemed right to him, neither as a photographic performance nor as a living resurrection of the beloved face. He concludes: ‘With regard to many of these photographs, it was History which separated me from them.’ He feels separated from History which does not allow him to link with his own mother.
In reflecting this, Barthes tend to feel the opposite when it comes to archives as we believe that the latter tend to keep in touch with the past. I believe that looking at those still frozen images of your beloved people be inclined to have a warm feeling of memories that can never be broken.
Another interesting approach to archiving is how we look at an old photograph compared to a current one. Philip Monk says:
A photograph, it seems, is only interesting when it ages. When an image is current, we understand it for all the wrong reasons, referred by its mediating role as an ‘optical sign’ to other functions of identification (i.e. recognition) in which the memory image plays a determining role . . . As the image ages, its semiotic value deteriorates, revealing it to be the empty cypher it essentially is.
This deterioration of semiotic value implies more than just that meaning changes over time. It changes the photograph itself in some fundamental way because it is based on the severance from the referent.
Staging the Archives Art and Photography in the new Age of New Media — Ernst Van Alphen
Roland Barthes — Camera Lucida