by Paul Hester
Photographic enterprise is simultaneously the stilling of our present and the prediction of a future longing for an invented past.
Even the most "artistic" photographic activities are occupied with this creation of memories- Cindy Sherman. Ansel Adams, and Henri-Cartier-Bresson all come to mind.
Williams Ivins wrote in Prints and Visual Communication, "at any given moment the accepted report of an event is of greater importance that the event, for what we think about and act upon is the symbolic report and not the concrete event itself." Our photographically manufactured memories are therefore the evidence through which we interpret our history.
For these reasons this issue of Image examines some of the collective memories that are being stored for our future. All of the collections listed are living, growing organisms continually put to all sorts of uses. In analysis of their ingredients and the criteria for their formulation, we can penetrate the mysticism that surrounds photography's elevation to high-art status, and move toward an understanding of how photographic meaning is constructed.
Photographs mean something; we look with the certainty that we will know more afterwards- We look for information, we look to be moved, we look for pleasure, we look for titillation.
It really seems that we look at photographs to be somewhere else, to be someone else. Aren't we expecting something for nothing? We want the experience without the risk. Magically, without the slightest effort, we will be given knowledge of what the earth looks like from the moon. No pull of gravity as we escape the earth, no long wait as we travel this great distance.
Look at a globe. The names are familiar; each one comes with a picture. But it is only a still from all the movies we've seen, the past issues of National Geographic* or footage from the ten o'clock news. Travel pictures from exotic places are an example of how we attach meaning to ignorance. Specifically, we value that which we do not understand. An unknown place depicted in a travel picture offers both the illusion of what it was like to be there and the reminder that we still don't know the place.
But the photograph simplifies for us. It gives us a report by which we may categorize an entire place and the experience of being there. Therefore, we remember the report and the place and soon forget that we have never been there.
In the course of researching this issue, I was reminded of a movie from the 1960s in which Terence Stamp plays an inhibited butterfly collector who kidnaps Samantha Eggars and adds her to his collection by locking her in the basement. The perversity of his act is present in the making of each photograph, and multiplied a thousand times in the preservation of photography. Dead bodies and movie stills have only a distant relationship to live action. But this is the alarming basis for an obsession with aesthetic fetishes. When we accept photographs as aesthetic objects, their social histories disappear. Our adulation of masterpieces and our fascination with the form of the image replace the essential question of meaning. We lose the impetus to think about the implications of what we see.
In particular, we are seduced by nostalgia to see in photographs what is missing from our moment- How does a photograph supply this knowledge? It is up to us to provide the happy ending because the consequences of an action are never revealed. The before and after, the prior conditions and the possible results of this decisive moment are like the unknown places in travel pictures. Through our ignorance or knowledge of history we determine the context that gives the frozen still its meaning. The myth of a universal art pretends to appeal across class lines and economic barriers- Meanwhile, we lose sight of situations in which choices are made, and we repress the social attitudes which are the basis for our readings of photography.
What is critical to this examination of photographic collections is an increased awareness not only of the collection, but also of the necessity for their renewed reading. We rely heavily on the authority of publishers and cultural institutions to define significance in our visual records. Art-sanctioned photographs are in danger of being misappropriated from the realm of ethical decisions, and at the same time of outweighing by sheer status other valuable images that have so much to tell us.
This has become a warning when it was merely intended as a reminder. The guardians of our memories are generous and enthusiastic. The photographs are available for the construction of new meanings. The question remains: once enshrined, how freely can we re-interpret them?
What is offered here is a sampling of the kinds of collections that exist, it is not definitive, but intended to represent a variety of the contexts in which photography functions.
Most of the collections are public collections and generally offer a continuing exhibition of some portion of their holdings. Please remember that public institutions are overworked and underpaid and be tolerant of their limited access. All that are open to the public welcome serious students to view their collections, but please call for an appointment.
The Texas Historical Foundation, a private, non-profit organization in Austin is in the midst of a two-year study of all the photography collections in Texas. A two volume set to be published by the University of Texas Press in 1985 will catalog the institutions, photographers, and subjects in an effort to promote historical photography and the need to preserve and care for it. The second volume will publish the work of fifteen Texas photographers who have been commissioned to photograph the state in celebration of Sesquicentenial. Any institutions that have not been contacted are urged to send a notice to Richard Pearce-Moses, The Texas Historical Foundation, P. O. Box 12243, Capital Station, Austin, TX 78711.