Looking Closer

In March 2016 the artists Elisabeth Tonnard and Joachim Schmid visited the Photo Libarary of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence. This is their account of what they experienced:

“There is a difference between reading a few sentences about a collection such as that of the Photothek, or seeing a few of its scanned images online, and experiencing such a collection physically. Walking past the many shelves in Palazzo Grifoni Budini Gattai is like walking past a gigantic organism sleeping in a cave. We see the countless similarly pale archival boxes, we feel how much these boxes weigh from the folders full of photographs tucked away inside them, we start to wonder how many different kinds of paper were used as paper supports for photographs, as labels for the boxes, as cards for the catalogue, and how many handwritings, typewriters and printers have replaced each other over the years. Looking closer over a series of days, it becomes apparent that the archive knows imperfections. There is a difference seeing a digitized image online and seeing an albumen print pasted to a paper support with what looks like the wrong kind of glue, causing the print to wrinkle. Looking closer, the archive reveals its absurdities. An image of the Golden Gate Bridge is not so strange perhaps in an art history collection, but it may easily become like a readymade conceptual artwork when it is put together with one other image – an aerial photograph of the Pentagon clipped from a magazine – in a folder generously labelled “U.S.A.”. In between we imagine traveling across the blank prairies. Some of the archival boxes indicate the blank spaces they contain by the question “Wo?” (Where?) as part of their labels, just like many of the catalogue cards indicate uncertainties in the interpretation of pictured scenes by having question marks behind their subject titles or by having subject titles crossed out and replaced by other proposals. A picture postcard from a site in Corfu or Corsica is also not so strange perhaps, but it becomes a thing of wonder when one finds it filed under architecture in an archive of photographic documentation of art. Why are not all postcards systematically collected, or all photographs found  in magazines? It soon turns out the few samples we find happen to be gifts from individuals. What entered the archive at times seems crushingly random. The archive that from the outside looks so impeccably structured and fixed, in fact is full of inconsistencies and surprises. These of course also account for its charm and perhaps we could even say for its resemblance to the outside world. In this, the archive knows beauty. Looking closer, we find beauty also, and especially, in details of images; in photos of buildings, streets, squares there are unintentional and unexpected portraits of passers-by, there is laundry hanging out of windows, there is garbage in the streets, there are other worlds shimmering in mirrors. We can read such details as unintentional signs of resistance against the absolute authority of the archive that is so manifest in its bureaucratic surface of filing and labeling.” 

Elisabeth Tonnard / https://elisabethtonnard.com/               
Joachim Schmid / https://schmid.wordpress.com/
March 2016

Photos: Stefano Fancelli, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz Max-PlanckInstitut, 2016