Francesca Seravalle, independent curator will be introducing her project The First Photos within one of the most interesting archival institutions in the world at our day-symposium ACTIVATING THE ARCHIVE: Contemporary Uses of Visual Archives held at Arnolfini alongside Thomas Sauvin, Amak Mahmoodian, Vicki Bennett, Charbel Saad, Maja Daniels and guest contributor Kensuke Koike on the May 5th 2018. This event is supported by the Arts Council of England and co-presented with Arnolfini. Early bird tickets are still available, limited capacity.
1: What has led to your involvement with archival material?
When I applied to University my intention was to become an archaeologist. For the first year I studied Latin, the History of archaeology, and Ancient History. I even did excavation workshops in the Venetian Lagoon and though this I’ve learnt that History is the ability of man to rebuild memories by collages of archaeological finds and texts.
My interest for the sources continued even when later I studied Contemporary Art with a thesis on “The first photographic gallery in Europe” where I spent a year in archives to collect information. After I did my first work in an Italian photographic archive CRAFT, cataloguing magazines from the 70s and correspondences between artists and art dealers. I then received a fellowship with Magnum Photos in Paris during the first digitalization of their archives.
My first approach with archival material was more as an archivist, and then it changed with my different work experience as an assistant of Ando Gilardi (one of the most important historians of photography who wrote before all about the “wanted photography” about Lombroso’s studies and about the history of pornography) and in the production of exhibitions and of books of photography with Magnum.
In London, I worked in many archives improving different skills, as the international account manager for a stock library, and as a researcher for the Archive of Modern Conflict on a book curated with Erik Kessels, Shining in Absence, where my goal was to find photographs representing absence. As an independent researcher, I was already working catching failing images for Erik Kessels and curating the exhibition and book Dalston Anatomy by Lorenzo Vitturi and Alex & Me by James Pfaff which is now on show at Street Level for Glasgow International.
As a curator, I’m used to working with images made by others with personal and public archives, analogical, concrete and digital. This is now the period where I’ve started to show my personal research about the First Photos. As well, I’ve become the Coordinator of the Archival and Curatorial department at Fabrica. I try not to create images, I prefer to investigate and give new visions to old archives, to discover stories. I’ve never been interested in becoming a photographer.
2: How do you activate the material that you gather, and why is this important?
The activation of an archive starts with a question that occurs to my mind when I look at a photo, or an archive. It’s important to understand if an archive has something special, sometimes catching what makes it unique, especially a current mistake.
When I find the right question, sometimes accidentally, the simplest as possible, I start to expand the question to 360° in an obsessive way. For example, now I’ve collected about 230 images beginning with the simple question “which is the first photo uploaded to the web?” and then I’ve multiplied the question about the first photos.
To activate an archive means to create an energetic or poetic vision from the correspondences of two or more images. For me this is possible if I inspire the vision of the spectator in front of a photo, if after shocking him/her with an obsessive question he/she begins to question himself/herself spontaneously about the first of everything, or to spend time looking at small details in photographs apparently without image, or considering the pixel as a quantum element.
I try to animate the viewer’s memory and imagination suggesting an aware use of the photographic medium, and the festival of photography with the history of photography.
Materials become answers or elements of a theory. I try to create “encyclopaedic research by images” with a new order: composing an atlas of images – if we want to speak as Aby Warburg – or multiscreen, as by metonymic and iconological relations. Images, when juxtaposed and then placed in atlas, could foster immediate, synoptic insights and strives to make the ineffable process of historical change and recurrence, immanent and comprehensible.
The research, including collecting the items, is an incredible creative process, an important phase between the other curatorial phase when I draw the installation and I write the texts. Every phase is important.
3: In a post-digital world, what role do physical archives play?
When you are researching, right from your computer at home, in an open source digital library, you feel comfortable and happy to accede to all the information from your desk. However, when you do research in a physical archive and you have one of the seventeen original copies of the work of the first photobook, by Anna Atkins, or in the personal journal of Roger Fenton and you read the sentences handwritten by him about the Valley of the death – the first war photographer, you feel the pleasure of an archaeologist or an inventor, the pleasure to really see for the first time a “phenomenon”, a discovery.
In a physical archive, you can find elements fundamental to your question, and those that are yet to be transcribed by the cataloguers because they were not fitting to the normal criteria. The original support and print are fundamentals, especially now, when we take thousands of photos and don’t print any of them. In front of a daguerreotype there is a kind of reverential respect, like in front of an ancient icon, especially if we know we have in our hands the only copy of probably the only portrait of an old lady from the 1850s, on a mirror glass support in a velvet and golden case. Even contemporary archives are important, like the ones at Magnum, especially if we can research in the contact sheets, looking between the rejected photos and rebuilding the hidden stories of the reportage.
Physical archives will always be treasures for students, researchers, artists and curators. Sometimes physical archives need digital support, for the communication, for creating interest around them, and for approaching a more general-public without reverential distance. The physical archive will always have a special value, especially as we have more years of experience with the conservation of the physical archive, than the digital archive.