I teach photography, and I find myself constantly reminding my students that photographs are not facts, but rather constructs of the photographer. But when I am holding one of the many old negatives in the special collections in Hunter Library, that mantra dissolves. I have asked Jenny McPherson for help with a re-photography project that I am doing in conjunction with Photo+Sphere (a series of events in Asheville held next November). I find her in the middle of a process of going through boxes and boxes of negatives donated by the family of a local photographer to weed out the nitrate-based ones for special treatment. There are a LOT of negatives. The process of going through them is both tedious and magical. I was drawn to the piles like the proverbial moth to a flame.
We are going through a box of mostly portraits. The first thing I feel when I pick one up is an unearthly feeling that I am holding old light. Then I start feeling guilty that I am going through them so quickly. They are people, after all. We are also making stacks of “images of interest,” ones that stand out for one reason or another or that make you ask questions. Why the bunny suit? Why is there a picture of a drawer? Why would someone photograph pages out of a Bayer Chemical Company instruction book that is in German? The mistakes are interesting to me too. There are weird overlapping images and ones where the photographer blacked out parts of the image with a red paint so those parts print white. There are ghost children who couldn’t sit still long enough so their heads are a blur. These all make me feel closer to the photographer and his thought process. The ones that stop everyone in the office include some identifying information like a name on a building, or a caption, or recognizable landmark. These can be anchors of understanding.
Many theorists have written about the uncanny quality of photographs–Bergson, Barthes, Derrida, to name a few. For me, they still fail to explain the overwhelming sense of presence these have. It feels like if you found the right photograph or set of photographs, you could reveal “it.” As a scientific illustrator, I spent a lot of time with artifacts, and they don’t have the same type of presence because they withhold more. For one, I don’t know as much about the culture, but also they are typically household objects that don’t face outwards in the same way. People take pictures to be seen by other people. They are meant to be read in a way that a cooking vessel may not be. Also, I think there is a lot of space around a photo, because it is never quite what the photographer intended or what the sitter requested. It feels to me like there might be something in those spaces if you just look hard enough.