In our contemporary image-saturated, screen-based culture, the materiality of photographic prints and negatives seems part of a quaint memory of the artwork before the age of digital reproduction and instant dissemination. While many artists certainly still work with film, in vernacular photography the digital reigns supreme and the analog has become a relic. The materiality of negatives and prints often become a site of fetishization in conceptual art—precious reminders of the past or polemics against the rising tide of the virtual.
The Fold: Space, time, and the image, an exhibition of the work of Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari currently at Contemporary Arts Center, avoids this fetishization and instead investigates how the material traces of the medium of photography reveal as much and perhaps more about their historical subject as the pictorial content of the images themselves. In keeping with this year’s FotoFocus theme “Open Archive,” Zaatari’s work draws largely from neglected archives of twentieth-century Arab memory, specifically the archive of Saida studio photographer Mashem el Madani (1928-2017) as well as personal archives and work discovered through the Arab Image Foundation, a Beirut-based non-profit co-founded by Zaatari and photographers Fouad Elkoury and Samer Mohdad in 1997 to preserve photographs from the Middle East, North Africa, and Arab diaspora.
Together the works in the exhibition construct social history from the margins, questioning both what images are selected for preservation and how exactly they tell us things about the past. For Zataari, layers of historical meaning are not a matter of enhancing details (the “zoom in and enhance” of television’s crime dramas) but rather are discernable along “the fold”—the material traces of pressures and manipulations from outside of the image. “The fold in a photograph,” he writes, “is a detail through which a narrative different from that narrated by the photograph unfolds.”
The first gallery features The End of Love (2013), 150 black and white photographs taken in the 1960s and found in a box in el Madani’s studio labeled “weddings.” While most of the images feature couples in nearly identical poses against a mundane studio backdrop, a few images of friends, siblings, or single sitters pepper the two rows of photographs, calling attention to the fallibility of archives and labels in much the same way as the occasional errant Google Image search result. The repetitive rows of people all posing in their best clothes for a special occasion contain no names or dates, divorcing the images from personal memory and evoking the same melancholic unease that comes with encountering boxes of anonymous family photos in an antique shop. Like these seemingly discarded personal memories, images that were deliberately discarded due to “errors” populate a number of the other works in this series, including flash irregularities, double exposures, and corroded negatives, all bearing traces of the material processes of taking, developing, printing, and storing images.
Perhaps most unsettling in the works from el Madani’s archive is the large diptych Damaged Negatives: Scratched Portraits of Mrs. Baqari and her friend (2012). The two portraits of middle class women in makeup holding identically awkward studio poses are the epitome of clichéd studio portraiture, except for the violent tears across their faces. At first glance, these appeared to me as actual punctures in the print, reminiscent of Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Concept paintings. Upon further inspection, however, these gashes are revealed to instead have been made on the negative. Taken from the same studio archive of Hashem el Madani, these negatives were scratched at the request of Mrs. Baqari’s husband, who forbade her to go out by herself and was incensed to learn that she had professional portraits taken. When she eventually killed herself by self-immolation, her husband (likely wracked with guilt for her misery) requested enlargements. These images simultaneously bear the images of young, modern women wanting to present themselves to the world, yet their surfaces trace the real and symbolic violence of patriarchal norms.
Gender politics and the specter of violence similarly haunt an object found in the archival display installation The Fold (2018), the most recent work in the show drawing from Arab Image Foundation research. In one image a young, unnamed militia member poses with his gun while partial images of women hover around his head. The two negatives were taken during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), when members of warring factions would often use the same photography studio. What seems like a deliberate juxtaposition or a ghostly apparition is actually the product of neglect: negatives piled on the floor of Tripoli studio photographer Joseph Avedissian caused the emulsion from one image to come off on the other, leading to “an uneasy co-habitation in the same shared frame.” Presented on platforms in smaller formats to scale with their archival referents and enlarged for closer examination, the works in The Fold make the process of research apparent, include text written by the artist, and deny the prestige of many of the exhibitions other large-format, gallery prints.
Zaatari also explores photographic archives in ways that completely deny the image. Letter to a Refusing Pilot; Hagal Tamir’s Photographs (2013), part of Zaatari’s research for a film on an Israeli conscientious objector who refused to bomb a school in the artist’s hometown in 1982, features no images at all. Tamir declined permission to allow his personal photographs to be exhibited, but did show them to Zaatari and consented that he could include their descriptions. Arranged on a wall with 3D prints of paper airplanes, these otherwise mundane personal snapshots tell a powerful story in their absence. Against Photography (2017) also obscures the photograph’s image, though not through denial of the object itself but rather a deliberately anti-representational translation of its physical form. Aluminum plates made by 3D scanning the surfaces of gelatin negatives make abstract prints in a variety of fine art printmaking media. The simple abstractions take on a formal quality of their own completely removed from the photographic referent.
The exhibition also features the film Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright (2010), which centers on a text conversation between ex-lovers anachronistically played out on a typewriter and the artist’s own grainy video footage of a sunset from the last day of 1999. Again inverting digital and analog technologies and alluding to personal narratives, the film evokes personal separation and provides the show’s few notes of humor (though very much situated within heartache).
Upon leaving the show I couldn’t help but wonder what would be the strange traces, juxtapositions, and folds that people will recover from the photographic archive of our current age? Without the physical spaces of storage and neglect where Zaatari conducts his excavations, will digital images always look eerily like a disconnected eternal present? Will we look instead to the material infrastructure that enables our digital sea of images to float unmoored online? Or worse will even more images be lost, unpreserved, and thus obliterated from cultural memory? As the work of Zaatari reminds us, we should be ever attentive to the cracks and folds in our material experience of images, perhaps just as much as to the images themselves.\