Notes from “Images and Orphans: Seeing Pictures in the Archive”

With “Images and Orphans: Seeing Pictures in the Archive” on April 26, Dan Streible and Tina Campt presented us with questions, materials and keywords that generated exciting ways of thinking about visuality and the archive.

Dan Streible opened the workshop by talking about his work on orphaned and neglected works. Tina Campt’s presentation followed up on Dan Streible’s by giving an overview of using and reading visual archives and thinking about how “orphaned” images relate to images of fugitivity.

Streible outlined his strategies and persistence in tracking down Children Limited (1951) at the Library of Congress’s Audio-Visual Conservation campus in Culpeper, VA.  He showed clips from this film, as well as from Robert Flaherty’s “Louisiana Story” Survey Film (1947-48), an alumni film entitled New York University in the 1960s and experimental filmmaker and activist Helen Hill’s home movies, shot in New Orleans between 2003 and 2005. These clips, taken together, represent a cross-section of Streible’s work in the archive as a detective, collaborator, critic and preservationist.

Overall, according to Streible, students working with film archives need to consider three questions:

  1. What are you looking for – film? Moving images? A print? A video copy? Is it about the form or the content for you?  Answering these questions will help you learn how to search film archives and guide you in figuring out when your search ends.  Because there is no centralized database for film archives and most material is un-catalogued and electronically inaccessible, research is still very much about person-to-person contact with archivists and other researchers. Talk to everyone!
  2. Who can partner with you? With both Children Limited and Helen Hill’s home movies, Streible described the need to create networks and communities of advocates for your research materials and to think broadly and creatively in finding collaborators. Using the Symposium as a model, Streible described how academics, archivists, artists, commercial companies, museums, libraries, collectors and studios can be brought together to find, preserve and promote access to neglected works.
  3. Why bother with the history of Hollywood and corporate media? Put another way, why not pursue research where your archival skills are more necessary and face fewer copyright obstacles to access and exhibition?

As scholars and archivists, Tina Campt asked us, what do we do with objects we can’t identify? What Campt does is to think critically about how to read everyday images – the family portrait, for instance – in their own fragmented, incomplete contexts. 

Using archives, for Campt, means devising speculative archival reading practices that go beyond historicizing or describing visual artifacts.  Using examples drawn from images of Harry Davis, an Afro-German in the late 1930s who worked as an apprentice alongside Jews and Communists.  Like his co-workers’, Davis’s was a vulnerable existence under the Third Reich; therefore, pictures of him and his co-workers document improbable survival.  Campt showed photos of Harry Davis and these other men in the workplace, the beer garden and the home.  By reading them in relation to one another, rather than describing each photo individually, Campt narrated a story of Davis as a participant in modes of inclusion, domesticity and belonging from which “history” suggests he should have been alienated.  The aesthetics of these photos suggest an adoptive kinship among Davis, his co-workers and their employers, an affective relationship which, read in its political contexts of Nazism, represents a subversive fugitivity. Images of the everyday in this context portray Harry Davis in settings of normalcy and survival, subverting the dominant aesthetics of erasure that typically apply to people like him in histories of the Third Reich and African diasporas in Europe.

Campt offered us these questions:

  1. Can we transfer insights from the orphan film movement to consider the undervalued still image, like family snapshots?
  2. How can we consider the fugitivity of the orphan image?

Issues and keywords that emerged from the animated discussion that followed include:

*the mundane and the lost – both Streible and Campt are attracted to mundane and lots works because the everyday is so often a site of subversion, resistance, surprise and experimentation.  As Streible says, films that most often offend, surprise or subvert are home moves. Campt concurs, as her work often focuses on everyday images from communities in which living and surviving are radical acts.

* “orphan” as a liberating term – speaks to the (in)visibility of identity, isn’t bound by documentary, accounting or archival requirements

* formats – in thinking about how to transfer insights from orphan films to still images, Campt and other participants spoke up about technological desire to capture and preserve moments as the same impetus, regardless of the medium of transfer

* radical archives – Steven Fullwood, workshop leader for the “Radical Politics of Hidden Archives,” spoke with Campt, Streible and others about thinking about the politics of un-hiding without being guided by attachment or investment – as he said, archives are never static.

* the possibilities for archivists and scholars as intermediaries – mediators and not owners, especially productive in dealing with films and images, where copyright and legal restrictions can make ownership prohibitive to access

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