Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Old Enthusiasms and Photography

In the continuing fascination with the purpose and meaning of public memory, photography has become a major topic of inquiry. Rob Kroes, Photographic Memories: Private Pictures, Public Images, and American History (Hanover, New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press, University Press of New England, 2007) is a compact book with a range of insights into the nature of photography. Kroes, an American Studies professor, confesses to being interested in the challenge of trying to write about the visual, particularly photographs, in their role as mnemonic devices. He uses his own personal experience as a starting place in his book, describing how he sees family life as a photographic project marking key moments. As he contemplates the process of examining photographs, Kroes indicates, “Old enthusiasms rise again, as I am transported back to the moments I took these pictures, often remembering why I took them, what I felt taking them” (p. 24).

Kroes provides glimpses into the nature of historical research as well. When he describes doing research on a Dutch-American farming community just west of Bozeman, Montana, he relates visiting a local cemetery and taking photographs of the headstones on the graves. Back in the Netherlands he did research in the archives about the origins of these families, describing how “in my research in various Dutch archives I had also come upon collections of letters sent home by the early settlers. One such collection allowed me to follow one family in particular, from settlement in the 1890s until well into the 1920s. I came to share their daily concerns as if the letters were addressed to me. It felt as if I had become a vicarious family member. One moment was particularly gripping. The letters whose ink was fading let me in on the news that the wife was expecting a baby. Then there is a gap in the correspondence. . . . As I could make out from later letters, the mother had died when she gave birth to the baby” (p. 31). When Kroes returned to the Gallatin Valley in Montana and was preparing for a local talk by working on his notes and slides, he made a startling discovery: “Suddenly I felt hit as if by an arrow piercing my chest. I looked at my picture of a headstone in the peaceable, quiet cemetery in the Dutch settlement. Cows were grazing in the near distance. The headstone, with a sculpted little lamb, had a name on it, still legible. I walked up to the projected image to be able to decipher the name and then stopped. It was her name, the name of the mother who had died in labor and had left her husband bereaved. She had disappeared from view only to reappear through this silent marker on her grave. I stood in tears, overcome by emotion, as if grieving for a family member that I had lost. The photograph, taken almost casually as one of a series, had forever changed meaning. It had inserted itself into my quasi-familial identification with a family far away in time and place” (p. 32). Kroes used this incident of discovery in his talk and many in the audience opened up their own private archives, memories, and stories. As he relates, “Many had diaries, sets of letters, and other documents that were in Dutch and which only I, through translation, could open for them” (p. 32).

The use of photographs by immigrants, along with letters, to maintain contact with relatives and friends is one focus of this volume. The most common immigrant photo was used as “part of highly private exchanges, meant to convey their messages within private networks of relatives and friends, They added a visual element to ongoing written exchanges and could derive their precise reading from that context” (p. 37). Although many of these photographs are in archives marking them as unidentified, we can still see that many are the products of studio portraiture “in which photography was made subservient to the creation of an illusion. The new mechanical medium reproduced for the many the pictorial aura of ease, refinement, and culture that only the wealthy could afford in the heyday of painting” (p. 38). Kroes makes some intriguing observations about the nature of immigrant photographs, the most profound of which relates them to other documentary sources: “If, in the exchanges between immigrants and their relatives and friends in the home country, photographs acquired their full meaning and sense only in a context of written words, one of two things usually happens with the passing of time. Either we find separate photographs that time has cut loose from their accompanying annotation, or we are left only with the annotation, with cryptic references in letters to pictures that originally must have been enclosed” (p. 44).

This suggests some interesting things about the descriptive words latter day archivists add to these images, but Kroes goes in a somewhat different way. He thinks we arrive at a completely different understanding of photographs: “Family photographs . . . are not pictures of the present, or records of the past; they are visions of the future” (p. 52). And for many of these photographs, this involves them being located in archives and interpreted by archivists.

His book also considers photography as historical source, ranging across stereographs, the use of Kodak cameras, photography as art, the role of iconic photographs, photography war (with an interesting discussion on the relationship of Civil War photography to Stephen Crane’s novel of that war), Cold War photography (such as Edward Steichen’s “Family of Man “ exhibition), American photographic images in Europe, and photography and 9/11 and the war on terror. Photographic Memories is a good addition to a working library on the history of photography.