Indexing meaning

Opening of the National Photography Archive 30th October 1998 / Into the Light: An Illustrated Guide to the Photographic Collections in the National Library of Ireland by Sarah Rouse

Review by Justin Carville from The Source Photography Review

With the opening of the National Library’s photographic archive in Temple Bar and the coinciding publication of Sarah Rouse’s illustrated guide to the collection, there is an opportunity to briefly asses the influence the archive may have on the conditions under which Irish photographs come to be reproduced, exhibited and understood.

In what has become a much celebrated account of photographic criticism, Allan Sekula comments that “…the general condition of archives involves the subordination of use to the logic of exchange. Thus not only are the pictures in archives often literally for sale, but their meanings are up for grabs.”

That the meanings of photographs remain an exchangeable commodity is very much in the interests of those institutions which acquire, store and ultimately distribute photographic images. Such exchanges are, after all, as much an economic necessity as an institutional privilege. Yet (and this is where the paradox lies), archives by extension of their perceived internal structures are supposed to be neutral repositories of information. Of course in practice, archives are rarely neutral and visual archives are especially susceptible to this paradox. Visual archives require the use of language to describe and categorise in order to become accessible and descriptions, no matter how impartial, affect the meaning of photographs. Thus guides to photographic collections, whether intentionally or not, affect the way photographs come to be reproduced and understood.

Children of Mrs. J. Jennings, Wynne Collection, Wynne 1462

Children of Mrs. J. Jennings, Wynne Collection, Wynne 1462

Published guides to archival collections can generally be said to have two main functions Firstly they serve as a quick reference guide for archival staff and researchers. A collection guide is often the first point of contact for an archives potential user and as such is required to succinctly and effectively establish the content and scope of the collections. However, guides are also an effective means of marketing a collection to generate income. In this respect they are required to suggest potential use.

Boyne Viaduct, 1932, Boyne Viaduct Album, R28,706

Boyne Viaduct, 1932, Boyne Viaduct Album, R28,706

‘Into the Light’ successfully balances the two. It is clear from the production values that the guide is intended to raise the profile of the archives collections yet it manages to avoid the generic determinism of ‘Ex Camera’, the National Library’s previous substantial publication of its photographic collection. It is easy to criticise the way in which archives publicise their collections without fully understanding the difficulties involved in cataloguing and indexing photographic images. At a time when many archives have resorted to indexing the meaning of photographs to establish their collections within a canon of photographic image making, the Photographic Archive is to be commended for its apparent disinterested approach, in both the guide and the accompanying exhibition.

Boatmen at Ross Castle, 1860 - 1870, Stereo Pairs Collection, SP83

Boatmen at Ross Castle, 1860 – 1870, Stereo Pairs Collection, SP83

The guide does however clearly indicate the archives perception of photography’s future use, and it is this outlook which may ultimately determine how photography comes to be understood in the future. It is clear from the brief statement on the archives future development that emphasis is on photography’s subjects rather than its practices. This is evident in its collections of contemporary documentary photography. The photographs in these collections are not so much a reflection of contemporary photography but a collection of photographs depicting contemporaneous subject matter. Whether or not this is in keeping with the ‘geographical and chronological’ classification of the existing collections, it fails to take account of the diverse range of documentary practices employed by Irish photographers. This is not to suggest that the archive should become a museum of photography, but there is now an opportunity for the archive to reassess the range of photographic practices in Irish photography and introduce this diversity into their collections for those who come to use the archive in the future.

Photography archives ultimately bring the past to the present and preserve it for the future. The preservation of contemporary photography however, seems to sit uneasily within this equation. If one main criticism is to be voiced over the Archives guide, it is the lack of any clear acquisition policy for contemporary photography. Acquisitions are difficult to quantify and within the institutional structure of the National Library are subject to budget restrictions and patron demands. There exists an opportunity however, not only for the archives administration but also for those photographers who so lament the exclusion of much contemporary photography from the archives collection, to invest in contemporary photography and preserve it for the future.