Holding Back the Sands of Time

At the end of September I took a four-day workshop called ‘Care and Identification of Photographic Materials,’ sponsored by the Metropolitan New York Library Council. We spent hours scrutinizing daguerreotypes, albumen prints, Polaroids; we gauged qualities of finishes – high gloss? dead matte? – and colors of deterioration (purplish-red or yellowish-brown?). Our teacher, Gawain Weaver, provided each of us with a small microscope (this model) that let us see paper fibers, dot patterns, and other tiny details so we could figure out if a particular image was a matte collodion or silver gelatin print, if it was made in a process called ‘developing out’ or ‘printing out,’ what kind of toner might’ve been used (sulfur? selenium?). With a rare combination of great passion and deep training, Weaver gave us a thorough overview of these many and varied categories.

But it got me thinking about the random nature of what is saved and what is lost, and how creative we are in confronting the relentless effects of time. Establishing an archive, or even thinking that some category of material object deserves to be shielded from its eventual demise, is to reroute those things away from their assignment as discards to a different kind of categorization. Instead of forgotten cast-offs, they become cherished traces. Deciding that anything deserves an archive is kind of like the impulse of the villagers in the movie ‘Woman in the Dunes,’ about a community that wages a daily struggle against the vast, drifting sands that would otherwise overwhelm and obliterate it.

First there were the general materials of the class. Every example we studied came from Weaver’s extensive collection, which ranges across centuries and continents. He has put it together over the years by visiting countless flea markets and eBay vendors. In other words, he diverted each piece from its transformation into a discard, and in doing so, he changed its meaning, value, and use.

Then there were the actual photographs. I was supposed to be focused on the mechanics and chemistry of the object, but I kept getting distracted by ‘content,’ as the specifics of the pictures are called. Each image represented some individual’s attempt to capture a moment, a relationship, a place, a tidbit of history, but now those images are disconnected from the people who created them. So, too, will the family photographs stuffed in the old pretzel tin on the top of my bookshelf become scattered, destroyed – and those few random pieces that might survive will not necessarily have any connection to me or to any of my descendants or forebears. Is this loss? or is this just…life?

The inevitability of deterioration was also a subtheme. Each image was made of ephemeral materials – things like paper, gelatin, silver, potassium. We learned in the workshop that the two biggest threats to photographs are temperature and relative humidity. No surprise there. Unless extraordinary measures are taken, pictures have a relatively short life – a few years for the most fragile, a few decades for some others, and maybe a couple of centuries for the most durable. In the grand scheme of human history, that’s not much time.

Archives meant to house and conserve photographic materials and other kinds of records – paper-based documents, films and videos, maps, and even things like tools and uniforms – exist specifically to slow the disintegration that is visited upon all these objects. It’s the same impulse that creates grand monuments and architecture. It proclaims the presence and the importance of those whose work or history are reflected in whatever is collected, set aside, and cared for. It links the past with the present, and lets us hope that perhaps some of our own material traces will outlive us, will survive the ineluctable dynamics of decay and dissolution.

It is a deeply human impulse, poignant and hope-filled. Will it succeed? Will any archive truly endure? Only time will tell.

My paternal grandmother, her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother, ca. 1908

4 thoughts on “Holding Back the Sands of Time

  1. This subject is also a huge discussion in the making of contemporary art, including mining the orphan images for added content , and archival aspects
    Thanks, I will share w/ my students

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