Exercise 2.2 – The artist as archivist

This exercise asks the student to write 500 words in your learning log on a piece of work by one contemporary artist- photographer who uses the archive as source material. You may focus on any artist you wish here but you may wish to select either:

• an artist who exhibited as part of the exhibition Archive Fever (2008)
• one of the British artists’ projects produced by UK organisation GRAIN

I have chosen Mat Collishaw whose project In Camera was produced by GRAIN.

Mat Collishaw has taken a different path with archive in his work ‘In Camera’ (Collishaw 2015), instead of archival documents of history, identity, loss, gain and memory within an individual or group of individuals; instead Collishaw has exhibited a set of images taken for an entirely different reason.

This reason reflects back into the history of photography and its use to record items. Not unlike the images produced in the ‘Pencil of Nature’ (Fox Talbot 1844–46) these are collections of things rather than collected portraits and landscapes. However the images are much closer to the police archives created by Alphonse Bertillion (1853-1914), as Collishaws’ images are indeed a police archive, but they do not have the darkest taint or hint of eugenics and phrenology.

Collishaw discovered the collection of images while working with the Library of Birmingham and the GRAIN photography hub. These uncatalogued images were part of an archive of scene of crime images taken by Midlands police in the 1930s and 1940s. The negatives had been marked with number of handwritten notes, usually contents of the scene, date, location, and the investigating officer.

These images are a frozen piece of reality, taken at a time to record a thing for purely documentary evidence, we as a viewer have no real handle on what message the photograph is trying to present. The images are uncomposed, the photographer is trying to be objective and to contain as much empirical evidence in the image as possible within the frame.

Very much in line with the work of Craigie Horsfield in ‘Well Street, East London. August 1987’ (Horsfield. C. 1995) Collishaw uses the date and time of the photograph to act as part of the descriptor or identifier of the image. The images become a steady moment of time, the contents frozen for examination outside of the reality of the image.
Collishaw uses the concept of frozen time within the exhibition, ‘In Camera’ is a small curation by Collishaw from the thousands of images he found. The 12 images, of which there are four portraits and eight landscapes are arranged and presented in almost mortuary style. The room has been laid out in almost forensic style, Collishaw uses laser line levellers to align text and images.

A clear glass case holds a large photograph. The photograph has a blue tint and shows 5 sides of bacon. This photograph was a scene of crime photograph to document evidence of a crime.
Image Credit: In Camera; 5 Sides of Bacon (Stolen Property), Mat Collishaw, 2015.

The images are held in isolation, the prints produced in a phosphorescent ink glow briefly in the boxes which hold them. The cold blue LEDS which line the cases and are the light source for the images are decay time delayed, allowing the viewer only a small sequence of time to view the image. The lighting is a semiotic theme of the exhibition, the lighting and display replicates the flash from the scene of crime photographer.

The exhibition title references the presentation of evidence in a court case where the case itself and its participants go to a private room without the presence of the jury.

Personally, I am quite taken with this work, it again presents and reinforces the concept that the archive itself can be a form and function. This allows the artists to curate and present found images and archives in a new format not only containing a new message, form and function but also as a way of representing the past and showing that even the smallest set of images can be presented in a fresh and new light.


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