Artists' archives

January 22, 2008

Robert Genn

If I had to do it all over again, I would have been archiving
from the get-go. I'd be photographing and cataloguing from
about age ten. In those days, that sort of thing didn't even
cross my mind. By the time I was in my mid twenties, I was in a
hopeless and irretrievable mess. I even used some of my less
satisfactory paintings to catch the drips from my wonky cars.
More recently, my archival incompetence was made painfully
clear when we were working on "Love Letters to Art." Finding
reproducible copies of sold work proved difficult. So I'm
hardly in the position to tell artists what to do.

Some creative folks have an excellent sense of self-worth and
truly grasp the value of storing well and keeping track. I
admire this. It's important to keep not only the chronological
record of finished work, but also the reference material,
notes, developmental wanderings, and eventual placement.
On my recent visit to the Getty Museum in LA, I attended an
exhibit of work by photographer Andre Kertesz. Geographically,
Kertesz (pronounced "care-tace") had three periods: the area
around Budapest during the First World War, around Paris in the
thirties, and around New York for the rest of his life. One of
the brilliant aspects of photography is the photographer's
ability to go back to old negatives and re-crop, re-dodge and
reprint. Kertesz, briefly returning to France in 1963,
rediscovered some of his old glass plates and 35mm (early
Leica) negatives. While many were broken or degraded, he and
his darkroom assistant were able to rework some of them with
brilliant results. In old age, armed with a sense of his own
value, Kertesz also attracted the help and advice of young
archivists. These connections were to prove valuable, both for
the historical understanding of photographic art and for his
own rising star.

It's a fact of life that slides degrade, prints get lost, and
floppies go badly off in all directions. In the meantime, the
current state of the art, the digital disc, can be safely
copied and moved offsite without degradation. These days
archives are going borderless. Software such as Inmagic
(DB/Text) is an indexing and retrieval system that permits
archivists anywhere to share and study the same stuff. Artists
who might someday want to revisit, rethink or remake--or those
just chipping away at their statues--need to give some thought
to keeping track.

Best regards,


PS: "Photography is a unique art that allows people to go back,
not only to rediscover themselves but also to get something in
print for the first time." (David Travis, Curator of
Photography, Art Institute of Chicago, remarking on the process
of Andre Kertesz)

Esoterica: When Kertesz hurriedly left Paris for New York in
1936, he left behind most of his negatives. Entrusted to the
care of a woman, they were taken by her to a country house in
the south of France for wartime safekeeping. Finally tracking
down the vintage material, Kertesz was provided with an
enriched déjà vu and a darkroom bonanza. "An accident helped me
produce beautiful effects," he said. These days there is no
reason for artists to be so accident-prone.