Every Photo an Archive

Every Photo an Archive

Peppered with moving, thought-provoking elements, the photographic exhibition “Archive Fever” is fascinating but essentially incoherent.


The title of the International Center of Photography’s “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art” is, pace Derrida, somewhat of a cheat and bespeaks a certain anxiety about the premise of the show itself. An archive is, my Webster’s tells me, a “place in which public records or historic documents are kept.” As the show’s introductory wall text admits, the term “evokes a dim, musty” locale. In contrast, a fever (Webster’s, again) is an “excessive excitement of the passions in consequence of strong emotion.” It’s as if the curator, Okwui Enwezor, felt the need, from the start, to sex up what he feared might be a less-than-enticing project.

He needn’t have worried. “Archive Fever” (on view through May 4) is a rambling, sometimes irritating, essentially incoherent show, and one in which the sum is decidedly less than its parts. It does not come to any sustained conclusions–or even introduce a sustained set of questions–about photography’s relationship to archival documents. But the exhibit’s individual elements are, often enough, moving, thought-provoking, unsettling–and even sometimes fascinating. “Archive Fever” is vastly imperfect yet well worth seeing.

The show encompasses an array of forms including installations, films, videos, silk-screens and photographs that range from high-art to documentary. (Surprisingly, though, there is nothing from the Internet, which is really one huge archive.) But what struck me, and surprised me, most about the show is its prevailing obsession: which is, quite simply, violence. Missing children, the Holocaust, gunshot victims, terrorism, jihadism, civil war: these are not the show’s only themes, but they constitute, at least to this viewer, its critical mass. One can’t come away from this show without concluding that we are, indeed, cursed to be living in interesting times.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the show often weakens when it strays from news and history. Take, for instance, the twenty-two prints of Sherrie Levine’s “appropriations” (that is, copies) of Walker Evans’s Farm Security Administration photos. It may be, as Enwezor claims, that these photos, produced in 1981, were a “daring, seminal deconstruction of the modernist myths of originality.” But the point has been made, over and again, and the imagery–or, rather, Levine’s message–doesn’t have much punch almost three decades later. (In contrast, Thomas Ruff’s “Machines” C-prints–tinted, reworked photos from the brochure of a defunct German tool and machine company–are a true homage, though perhaps an unintended one, to Evans’s sober photographs of farm implements.) In fact, Levine’s work succeeds only in making me want to see a “real” Evans photo–though I realize that her triumph lies, precisely, in those quotation marks.

Another work of appropriation, Glenn Ligon’s “Notes on the Margin of the Black Book” (1991-93), has drawbacks similar to Levine’s. Taking up three whole walls, it consists of ninety-one photos in parallel double rows of sleek, muscular, sometimes naked black men that were originally shot by Robert Mapplethorpe; the photos are separated by short quotes from the likes of Roland Barthes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Frantz Fanon, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and (surprisingly) Hilton Kramer. Gates argues that “race is the ultimate trope of difference,” while Fanon informs us that “the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis.” The problem here is immediately evident: these tendentious texts, though perhaps true, are powerless against the grace, eroticism and sheer impudence of Mapplethorpe’s pictures. (Talk about punch!) It’s hard to rob these images of their danger, their power and their brazen lookability; the words subvert the pictures as much as a mosquito subverts a lion. As the photography critic Vicki Goldberg once noted, “Any work of art that can be discussed primarily in terms of deconstruction will not have a strong political impact.”

Other installations fare better. Zoe Leonard’s “The Fae Richards Photo Archive” (1993-96) consists of eighty-two prints that tell the life story of a fictional black film actress. The mostly black-and-white photos, made in a consciously old-fashioned style, track Fae through her love affair with a woman and “document” her film career, which is thwarted by racism. (In a 1936 film called Raising Cara, “Richards played the uppity servant girl.”) Though the targets here may be predictable, the installation, which includes everything from homely family photos to glamorous film stills, is made with flair, wit and an impressive attention to detail.

In a literal sense, of course, every photograph is an archive: from the moment of its inception, it records the past–or, at least, a glimpse of it. What makes the photos here specifically archival? Such questions are posed, though not answered, by the inclusion of British photographer Craigie Horsfield’s huge, inky, black-and-white portrait of a young Polish couple named Magda and Leszek Mierwa, which was taken in Krakow in 1984. The Mierwas, surrounded by a jet-black background, sit upright, though comfortably, in their chairs. Leszek, a handsome bearded man, wears a T-shirt and bluejeans. His forearms are hairy; his hands (with wedding band visible) gently cross in his lap; his faint hint of a smile confirms rather than offsets the deep sense of melancholy that saturates this image. Magda wears a severe black dress; her shiny, dark hair flows to her waist; one delicate hand, illuminated, rests on her lap. She has dark, lovely, almost hooded eyes and wonderfully thick black eyebrows; she neither smiles nor frowns. The couple stares at us with such intensity, such forthrightness, such purity, that it’s hard to look back.

A show like this would, of necessity, have to include Andy Warhol, whose art was so dependent on the reproduction and manipulation of documentary photographs. Enwezor chose Race Riot, a screenprint circa 1963 based on a Charles Moore photo essay from Life magazine. Though the city is not named, the place is clearly the Deep South, which was at that time still the Jim Crow South. The photo/screenprint, in black and white, shows an African-American demonstrator–neatly attired in a button-down shirt, shiny black shoes and a trim hat with a ribboned brim–being attacked by a police dog; a group of beefy white policemen, handcuffs and dogs in tow, surrounds him. In the background, a photographer in suit and tie shoots the scene. Screenprints are often used for political posters, and Race Riot reminds us of how the political movements, and the political violence, of the ’60s seeped into popular culture and daily life. Race Riot makes us feel both bad and good: bad about the oppression of black Americans, good about what the civil rights movement fought for and accomplished. It is dated in the best of ways. Yet as with all Warhol’s “political” work (I am thinking especially of the electric-chair and the hammer-and-sickle paintings), there is a flippancy here–a propensity to see politics as, essentially, a manifestation of style–that makes me feel slightly queasy.

Ditto Robert Morris’s Untitled, a silk-screen from 1987. It shows a naked female corpse–eyes and mouth half-open, hipbone jutting out, crotch and breast exposed–and is based on a photo taken by the British Army when it liberated Bergen-Belsen. Morris has splashed the image with bluish and black tints and surrounded it with a large, carved black frame. So what? It’s easy to see how using the Holocaust might add gravitas to Morris’s work. But it’s hard to see how his approach moves us even an inch closer to understanding or engaging such crimes.

Not exactly flippant, but equally superficial, is the museum’s treatment of Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan’s The Specialist, his 1999 documentary about the Eichmann trial that is based on courtroom footage. Displayed on a video screen smack in the middle of the exhibit, the film plays in a continuous loop, which means that most museumgoers, if they stop to see it at all, catch a glimpse of disembodied, probably nonsensical footage and snatches of conversation… and then move on. The Holocaust is transformed, almost literally, into random white noise: the Muzak of barbarism.

Fazal Sheikh’s “Afghan Images” has the opposite fault: too much respect rather than too little. Sheikh is a Princeton-educated American (his father was Kenyan; his grandfather, Indian) who has photographed extensively in Africa and Afghanistan, especially among refugees. (Many of these photographs are collected in his books A Sense of Common Ground and The Victor Weeps.) Sheikh’s images are often sepia-toned and composed with the solemnity of formal portraits; his subjects, though living through the most wretched histories, project a strikingly unassailable, albeit grief-stained, dignity. The four black-and-white photos included here were shot in Afghan refugee villages in northern Pakistan in 1997 and previously appeared in The Victor Weeps.

Each picture shows, in close-up, a creased, weathered hand holding the snapshot of a deceased loved one: three turbaned men with beards, one male child. We never see the holders of the snapshots: it is the departed, not the living, who matter. The “Afghan Images” are simple, sad and beautiful; and, presented as a set, they create a far deeper impression than each one could on its own.

But these images commemorating death are also highly disturbing, for they represent exultation rather than lament, at least in the eyes of their subjects. The commentary next to one photo quotes a man named Haji Abdul, whose father and five brothers died fighting the Soviets, on his losses. “It is a lucky family that offers the lives of their loved ones to the cause of Allah,” Abdul says. “They have brought great blessings upon us.” (On the day that I write this, a top Hamas commander whose son has just been killed by Israel expresses exactly the same thought to an Associated Press reporter.) In the accompanying wall text, Enwezor praises Sheikh for presenting us with “emblems of injustice, nobility, and martyrdom”–are the three synonymous?–and for the fact that the photographer “does not stand in judgment.” Sheikh’s empathy–and the decades-long suffering of the Afghans–are unquestionable, as is Sheikh’s commitment to those he photographs. He’s the opposite of a “parachute photojournalist,” and there’s no hint of exploitation in his work. Yet the lust for martyrdom, which has proved, everywhere, to be the lust for murder, seems precisely the sort of thing that should be judged–if not in 1997, then surely in 2008; ask the Iraqis, who virtually every day are blown to bits in mosques, marketplaces, schools and at funerals by the heaven-seekers. (For a radically different, and more intimate, take on the high cost of the culture of martyrdom, see Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.)

It is hard to imagine the parents of the children in Ilán Lieberman’s “Niño Perdido” (Lost Child; 2006-07) thanking God for their blessings. Lieberman, a Mexican artist, has created a quiet, chastening installation that consists of thirty tiny drawings based on photographs of missing–probably murdered–children, framed by simple off-white mattes and silver chrome frames. (The drawings are so small that the artist provides a magnifying glass.) Each portrait is accompanied by the child’s name, height, hair or eye color, date and place of disappearance, and age (they range from 1 year to 17). Also supplied: “particular characteristics,” which include “has language difficulties,” “black mole on left leg” and “scar on right cheek, stutters.” These children had histories, and their bodies did too. Some of the children smile; others look quite serious. None could have imagined their fates. The minuscule, delicate precision of these drawings–in such stark contrast to what must be the magnitude of the parents’ wild, uncontrollable grief–is arresting.

The romanticization of violence that emerges in Fazal Sheikh’s work is not shared by Walid Raad, a Lebanese artist who lives in New York City. Raad’s “We Can Make Rain But No One Came to Ask” (2008) explores his nation’s fatal attraction to the car bomb. His installation consists of tiny slivers of photos of Beirut, some of which are based on those of Georges Semerdjian, a Lebanese newspaper photographer who specialized in documenting the decimation of his city during its long years of civil war (Semerdjian was killed on the job in 1990); others are altered versions of photos Raad has taken over the years. Raad includes “newsy” black-and-white shots of Lebanon as rubble along with sunny, weirdly cheerful color images of the wreckage. The pictures are so small that one strains to see them (no magnifying glass here), suggesting that Lebanon’s auto-destruction has resulted in a kind of moral and political shrinkage.

“What happens in and to cities when residents, buildings, streets, and neighborhoods are exposed to the constant threat of assault?” Raad asks. And who, he wants to know, is behind these crimes: which militias, which armies, which individuals? Car bombs (in Beirut, they have numbered in the thousands) don’t just kill lots of people and destroy lots of property; they deform, perhaps irreparably, the frangible social ecology of a city. Raad explains: “Semerdjian’s photographs revealed how spatial and social distinctions between the private and the public, between the inside and the outside were yet another casualty of the car bomb crimes: the insides of bodies (stomach, flesh, and bone) on the outside of bodies; the contents of stores and buildings…now propelled onto the street; buildings without facades affording passersby unhindered views of private living rooms and bedrooms.” And he warns that the omnipresent possibility of violence–the sine qua non of car-bomb culture–is of import not only to the Beirut of past and present but to the “London, Madrid, Baghdad, Gaza City and New York of today and possibly tomorrow.” I hope he’s wrong.

The stunner in this show is an installation that, on its surface, is so conceptually simple that it might have seemed a gimmick. German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann’s “9/12 Front Page” (2001) takes up an entire room, set off from the rest of the exhibit. It displays the front pages of 100 newspapers from around the world as they appeared on September 12, 2001. Virtually every paper shows one or more shots, often in color, of the imploding towers, though

some have ancillary photos too: a turbaned bin Laden, finger pointing in the air as he lectures; terrified New Yorkers fleeing the buildings and astonished, horrified ones who stand on the sidewalks and watch; cheering Palestinian children; a blank-faced George Bush. The languages, aside from the expected English, French, Spanish and German, include Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Croatian, Portuguese, Dutch and Albanian. Here, then, is the twenty-first century’s Internationale (though not quite the one Marx envisioned): a world united, if only for a day, in awe-struck fear.

An unsettled question among politicians and intellectuals, particularly on the left, is whether terrorism is a criminal act or a form of war. What is clear from “Front Page” is that the 9/11 attacks were perceived throughout the world as, precisely, acts of war against a sovereign nation, at least at the time. Guerre contre les USA, cries Tribune de Genève, a theme echoed by many others: A Declaration of War, says the British Guardian; La nouvelle guerre, reads Le Figaro; Krieg gegen die Zivilisation, says the Rheinische Post; while La Stampa describes the day as Attaco All’America. As-Safir, an Arabic political daily, takes a slightly different if no less dramatic approach: Apocalypse Now.

In contemporary usage, the phrase “it’s history” is pejorative: it connotes something tired, irrelevant, over. Feldmann’s installation connects us to history–and to its handmaiden, journalism–in the opposite way: as something we are forever living through, always struggling with, constantly surprised by and repeatedly unable to master. He connects us, too, to an understanding of history as a living process that we make, and share, with others (a concept that, alas, George W. Bush never grasped). “Front Page” can also be seen as a refutation of Susan Sontag’s oft-quoted claim that repeated exposure to violent photographs anesthetizes us. On the contrary: viewing those towers of death is a deeper, and far worse, experience in 2008 than it was seven years ago, if only because now we know all the bad things that have happened since–and we can be sadly confident that there are more to come. The layers of grief have accumulated.

Sitting in Feldmann’s installation, surrounded by the babel of languages, the inescapably terrible pictures, the screaming headlines, I felt humbled and shaken, but I didn’t feel isolated, irrelevant or numb. In our time, and for the foreseeable future, perhaps that is what it means to be a citizen of the world.

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