Date: 22nd February 2014
research experience on the charles marville photographs at the state library of victoria further update
An interesting email arrived from the Collection Services Manager further questioning why I actually want to see the Marville prints in the State Library’s Collection.
In part the email says, and I precis: the prints are fragile and very rare; the Library has digitised all the prints and provided high resolution images available for free download from our website; the careful storage of the original prints and the provision of digital files is the Library’s standard approach to achieve that delicate balance between access and preservation. The email goes on to ask, “I would be interested to understand more about your research needs with this collection and why it is important for you to view the original prints out of their protective enclosures.”
They still don’t get it do they?
Vintage prints have to be seen in the flesh. Anyone who knows anything about photography understands this but not, apparently, the State Library of Victoria. Why do you even need to explain this to them? When looking at vintage photographs you actually have to see the physical print, the surface of the print, not some simulacra hidden behind plastic or a high res scan online!
As Bill Henson insightfully observes in an interview about his current selection of images at the Monash Gallery of Art in the exhibition Wildcards,
“One of those preoccupations is an interest in the photograph as an object, in the physical presence of the print or whatever kind of technology is being used to make it. Part of the reason for that is that photography, more than any other medium, suffers from a mistake or misunderstanding people have when they’ve seen a reproduction in a magazine or online: they think they’re seeing the original. A certain amount of photography is made with its ultimate intention being to be seen in a magazine or online, but most photography, historically, ended up in its final form as a print – a cyanotype, or a tin type or a daguerreotype or whatever it might be… [This] continues to interest me about photography: how these things inhabit the world as objects. And indeed we read them not just with our eyes but with how our whole bodies read and encounter and negotiate these objects, which happen to be photographs.”
Wildcards: Bill Henson shuffles the deck
Monash Gallery of Art
1 February – 30 March 2014.
“They’ve seen a reproduction in a magazine or online: they think they’re seeing the original… we read them not just with out eyes but with how our whole bodies read and encounter and negotiate these objects, which happen to be photographs.” Well said.
Perhaps the State Library needs to read Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in which he discusses the aura of the original and “the concept of authenticity, particularly in application to reproduction. ‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’ He argues that the “sphere of authenticity is outside the technical” so that the original artwork is independent of the copy, yet through the act of reproduction something is taken from the original by changing its context. He thus introduces the idea of the “aura” of a work and its absence in a reproduction.” (Walter Benjamin (1968). Hannah Arendt, ed. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Illuminations. London: Fontana. pp. 214-218 quoted in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” on the Wikipedia website)
In other words, there is nothing like standing in front of a jewel-like Vermeer and feeling the aura of the original, not one shielded behind glass (or plastic in this case). By making many reproductions, including online copies, you substitute a plurality of copies for a unique existence. This is why I was so looking forward to seeing the Marville’s, to FEEL THEIR PRESENCE…
Of course I am as guilty as anyone through this blog of disseminating reproductions around the world, and I freely admit that. The photographs I reproduce are not the originals and should never stand for them. Even in this age of infinitely reproducible digital images there is still that aura of standing in front of a print in a gallery and feeling its eternal value and mystery. As Walter Benjamin writes, “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” And you need to see and feel that history.
Finally, I wonder how many people the State Library of Victoria have coming in to see these prints? When was the last time anyone actually physically saw them that wanted to? I would think very, very, few people indeed. The “delicate balance” between access and conservation is obviously well weighted towards the former.
It will be interesting to see how the State Library of Victoria responds and whether they can “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the photographs of Marville.” Even for an instant. To facilitate my research in this time, in this space where one can admire the beauty of an object without compromising the need to preserve – no, lets think of better words: retain, possess, guard, protect, shield – the prints. I will keep you informed.
Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog
Charles Marville (1813-1879, photographer)
c. 1853 – c. 1870
In collection: Photographic views of Paris
Undated, dates assigned from time of Haussman’s renovation of Paris
photographic print mounted on cardboard : albumen silver
32 x 26 cm
Gift; Government of France; 1880
In the State Library of Victoria Pictures Collection
State Library of Victoria
328 Swanston St,
Melbourne VIC 3000
T: (03) 8664 7000
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