Visual Resonances

by Karin Bareman

English Essays

Collecting Photography

Any photography collection is in and of itself a strange beast. Collecting photos is a tantalising enterprise, a hopeless endeavour. As Susan Sonntag once pointed out: ‘To collect photographs is to collect the world.'[1] After all, the raison d’etre for any other collection is the salvaging and assembling of things that have a unique existence and value. Photographs can be many things, but they can never be unique. And in a world overflowing with images, it can be questioned whether they need salvaging. However, working with a photography collection as part of your job is a lot of fun. Many people might think that taking care of a photography collection solely involves searching for interesting practitioners and looking at beautiful pictures, followed by spending taxpayers’ money on acquisitions for museums. Many academics ponder such important questions as how photography collections inform and change the history of the medium, and whether collections are neutral depositories of images or form part of institutional discourses.

But few people realize that the real work involved in keeping and maintaining a photography collection is actually quite hands-on and happenstance. Much time goes into transporting the pictures to and from depots. More time goes into packaging the works adequately. As Sonntag states: ‘Photographs, which package the world, seem to invite packaging.’ After that, they need to be scanned, labeled, barcoded, measured, described and photographed. This is no irony. Photographic images in collections get photographed in order to enter their pictures in a database and to produce labels. All this is done in order to keep track of the works. And after all that prodding and packaging, you find out that you have forgotten to take that one measurement, to look into that one little detail you needed in order to complete your database, or to attach that one particular label. Or you discover that you have used the same barcode twice, which will cause you no end of headaches further down the line. All of which means you will have to trudge back to the depot and start the process all over again.

However, the most fascinating part of working with a photography collection is seeing the works up close and personal. Despite the inherent ability for reproduction and ease of dissemination of images – especially in the age of the internet – there is something I really like about the tangibility of pictures neatly wrapped in plastic in a storage space. There are photographs I fell in love with immediately, such as Fleur Boonman’s little travelogue. There are images that grow on me every time I see them, like Corriette Schoenaerts’ photo of a bookshelf. And then there are the black sheep, which can be found in every single photography collection. The images that make you think: how the hell did this end up here? Who on earth thought it was a good idea to add? Why was it included? But there is also the growing sense of ownership, a genuine feeling that all these works belong to you. And when you see them being exhibited elsewhere, as happened during Foam’s presentation at Rencontres d’ Arles last summer, there is that overflowing sense of pride. The little children have grown up and spread their wings to be seen by the rest of the world.

[1] Susan Sontag: ‘On Photography’. Page 3 and 4.


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