Sleeves, Boxes, Wrapping Papers, Elastic Bands: What We Never Think About When We Think About Photographs
Before mentioning who I am today, I should start from the beginning... Even though I am a 43 year-old woman, a mother and a self-employed worker who tries to catch up with the course of life, I think I have never completely broken up from my childhood.
As far as I can remember, I have always loved books, pictures, and old things. I used to spend a lot of time leafing through family photo albums and picture books. At my grandparents’, I liked to feel under my fingers the carved bas-relief of the waxed heavy Breton furniture; I also loved the enchanting atmosphere of their dusty attic full of old-world treasures. I had a blue box where I kept a shining pebble, some foreign coins, an earth beads necklace, and a very small dry branch that looked like a dog's paw. To me, those items were fascinating and potentially useful for something. I was a collector as a child, and I remained one.
I was an adolescent when I discovered photography and began to practice it. It became my means of apprehending the world. It was exciting: I was able to turn what I looked at into a tangible image. I was lucky enough to develop my practice and my knowledge through my studies, more specifically in the 1990’s at the National School of Photography in Arles (France). It was certainly the most intense period in my life. I produced a lot of images; many of them were of leftover things or places that invited you to daydream, where a little stone became a whole planet, a piece of motor a spaceship. I also made collages with the little pieces of photographic paper that is used for determining the exposure. It felt wrong to simply throw them away: incomplete images revealed such poetry!
I soon realised that my personal photographic production would not earn me a good living and I did not feel like becoming a professional photographer. At that time I was discovering with great interest the history of photography, and that is why I decided to study photography conservation. It would enable me to make a side step into patrimonial photography (heritage sites, objects, portraiture, albums, architecture, etc.) without leaving aside my personal photography work. I was, and am still fascinated by all this photographic material that was very often neglected until the end of the 20th century. Lots of it is in danger of disappearing, every day, because it’s too altered, or because few people really take care of old pictures. Taking care of them became for me like a mission. Photography conservation is about observing items and collections, making a diagnosis, finding the treatment, and putting it into practice. The treatment can be conservative or curative. All the interventions must be documented and justified, and above all, must not interfere with the authenticity of the object. So, even if I am in a way rescuer of photographic objects, I have to remain very humble towards them.
One day as I was doing photography conservation work in a museum, I opened a box full of negative rolls wrapped up in papers of various colors, exactly as the photographers had stored them many years ago. I felt an urge to take a picture of these rolls in the condition I found them. It was even more necessary since for purposes of long-term preservation, the rolls had to be taken out, cleaned, cut, and repacked according to contemporary standards. Most probably, the boxes and wrapping paper that came with the negatives would be disposed of. The conditions to take the pictures were not excellent (fluorescent light and cell phone), but this was the start of resuming my personal photography work. I kept on taking pictures of these "archaeological states," either of photographic materials I received for treatment at my workshop or ones that I found at flee-markets... or even in waste bins. I named them "Placentaires" (“placentars”) – let me explain why.
For some time, I have been thinking of some analogy with the photographic collections I am entrusted with for preservation work, which after treatment are sent back tightly wrapped up in white paper, neatly settled in their grey cardboard cradles. Usually, the rest of the stuff that originally comes with the rolls of negatives – sleeves, boxes, wrapping papers, elastic bands – is not considered important in any other way than a source of information for the inventory. Very little of it is materially preserved.
One day, it struck me that all of the original wrapping that served to envelop the life of these photographs closely resembles placenta. Placenta is a very odd organic material. Starting from the same material as the cells of the future human being, in some way it "denies itself" so that this one can develop and reach life. At the time of delivery this large piece of meat is severed from the baby when the umbilical cord is cut. It is then disposed of, unless it is used for research or medical purposes. In the end, who cares about this singular organ, which is obviously a part of the person to be? I have always been fascinated by this placentary poetry, its nearly nothingness that drives it to disposal. Beyond its image, the materiality surrounding old photography collections fires up my imagination.
For the past two years I gradually accumulated a corpus of work. This personal work is like a dotted line I keep drawing in the spare time. I have not officially presented any of it yet. I like things to settle, in order to see what will emerge. It gives some poetry – and motivation – to my conservation work. It evokes what excites me in my daily contact with patrimonial photography: its serendipity and materiality, the range of human emotion I find in the pictures and their packaging, their montage, their aging. It also evokes what is considered as patrimonial, what is noted as important by museum institutions and what is not.
~ Gwenola Furic (France)
More at https://gwenola-furic.jimdo.com/
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.