Archival Meaning


Volpe, Andrea L., ‘Archival Meaning: Materiality, Digitization, and the Nineteenth-century Photograph’ AfterImage, 36 no.6 May/June 2009. 11-14


By focusing on the photograph as object and the terms on which digitization is changing access to photographs as archival objects, these exhibits prompt a rethinking of the history of nineteenth-century photography as a history of what is collected and what is seen, what is stored and what is forgotten.

[Volpe discusses the method in which archived photographs are displayed in ‘A Good Type’, revealing the construction of the archive]


The exhibit exposes the slippages between stereotype and typology, and the mobility of such visual rhetorics as artful images trades in stereotypes that slide into fact.


Storage is what transforms photographs from souvenir to science and remakes the terms by which wthey produce knowledge.

By emphasizing the materiality of the photograph, the exhibit’s approach restores knowledge to these images and highlights its discursive contingency; the photograph as object is safe-guarded and stored by the archive but its meaning is not fully contained by it.

[On “Fragile Memories” exhibition] what is so fascinating about the dynamics that digital technology is showing us about photographic history is that memory and meaning are not fixed. It is not, perhaps, even that fragile, given the protections of the archive or the stories the photographs still have to tell. What is surprising is the complexity of photographic memory, where a photograph can reveal multiple histories, and where the ability of the nineteenth century photographic object to prompt forgetting or remembering is shaped by the technology itself.

[On restoration of an archeological structure due to knowledge gained through digitization of a glass plate negative] The photograph itself is responsible for this possibility, but with an intriguing dynamic: digitization is restoring to photography its documentary, evidentiary quality, even as it translates emulsion to binary code, changing the materiality of the image but restoring its referent with greater detail than ever before.

The scanning project and its re-narration of events underscores the fragility of photographic meaning, not because of the archival vulnerability of glass plate negatives, but because of the contingency of historical narratives photographs are called upon to illustrate.


As image it is easy to see digital as preserving photography’s conventional ability, as Barthes put it to “reproduce to infinity [what] has occurred only once”.

Digitization changes the meaning of the photographic plate, which now becomes an index with an aura; digital both restores the reproducability of the photograph and redefines the plate as an original. the glass plate negative becomes a referent for a digital code whose only witness to that has been refers back to the glass plate.

The wide-scale digitization projects in museums and libraries are definitely democratizing access to the nineteenth century photograph […] But is what we are seeing still a photograph?

Theres a new awareness of photograph as object, as technology shifts so profoundly, and digital, by its transformation of that object may very well allow the archives to remember what is otherwise easy for them to forget.


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