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Since its invention, photography has been thought of as a tool for making records of moments, places, objects, and people. This record-making may be accomplished casually or undertaken on a grand scale. As Okwui Enwezor puts it in the introduction to his curated exhibition “Archive Fever”, the camera can even be described as an “archiving machine”. In this sense, almost any group of photographs could be considered an archive.
Thinking about photographic archives gets complicated, however. They are public, private, or both; they can be physical, conceptual, or both. They may be accessible or secret. Photographs are notoriously difficult to categorize, and end up being ordered in idiosyncratic ways and serving a variety of interests.
The fall 2013 issue of the TAP Review looks at the concept of “archives” as it relates to photography in Asia. Several months ago, TAP editorial board member Jean Loh sent me these thoughts:
“Archives” is such a vast and profound subject, especially regarding a whole chunk of Chinese visual history missing during the three decades of Maoism, and the most violent times of search and destroy at the peak of the Cultural Revolution.
In Burma, I know a gallery owner who has started amassing old Burmese photographs. His problem is a total lack of “archiving,” the absence of any methodology. I understand his priority is to save and rescue those pictures from the garbage dump, but the piles of old photos create such a poignant scene that it touches me every time I visit and browse through his “anonymous” photo archives, with approximate dates and unspecified identities reflecting a state of oblivion.
Isn’t that the common lot amongst tropical Southeast Asian countries: for example, in Cambodia, when I look at the fading yet still haunting portraits of victims and their torturers at Tuol Sleng, the so-called Museum of Genocide, the photographs are in a state of total neglect. Or in Vietnam, does anybody have an idea of where all those family photo albums are that were left behind when the people in Saigon fled ahead of the entrance of the Viet Cong army?
Indeed, absence and loss loom large when we think about photographic archives in Asia. To the researcher, it may seem that the majority of historical Asian photographs are actually held in Western archives. But significant efforts are under way in several Asian countries to preserve and highlight work from the past, and to showcase contemporary work as well.
In the current issue of the TAP Review, Gretchen Liu surveys the photography collections of three institutions in Singapore — the National Library, the National Museum, and the National Archives — and traces the route many of the photographs took to become part of these archives. Benita Stambler examines the private firm of Plâté Ltd., in Colombo, Sri Lanka, which holds, and makes accessible, a large and growing collection of photographs from Ceylon’s colonial period. Gao Chu and Wang Shuo, in Beijing, describe their work in the photography archives of the Chinese Communist Party, work that entails painstakingly identifying the pictures from individual photographers, thereby making historic photographs from the 1930s and ’40s newly available for further study. Looking at a collection made in Burma but held in the United States, Jackie Imamura profiles the works of the Baptist missionary Sidney Hollingsworth, which are archived by the American Baptist Historical Society.
Also in the current issue, Christine Horn writes about her research in the Sarawak Museum archive and her experience “repatriating” early photographs of local village activities to the current villagers, descendents of the original subjects.. And Madhuja Mukherjee, in Kolkata, takes the abandoned archive of publicity photographs from the Indian film industry and uses it to make art installations that suggest the theaters in which the images originally appeared.
We can also think of photographic books and exhibitions as archives. Eiko Aoki takes a fresh look at an exhibition of work by the Japanese photographers Kansuke Yamamoto and Hiroshi Hamaya that was held in Los Angeles, and comments on its cross-cultural reception. Ross Tunney applies Foucault’s and Derrida’s theories of the archive to a specific photo book by the Japanese photographer Suda Issei. Also in a theoretical vein, Sudhir Mahadevan meditates on the factors that enable the historical archives of photography in India to take the forms they do.
We are fortunate that Raymond Lum continues to keep us excellently up to date on recent publications and expanding digital resources, and that Jamie Maxtone-Graham produces, on a daily basis, TAP’s lively Facebook page, a rich resource in itself.
With this issue, we would like to welcome two new members to the TAP editorial board. Claire Roberts, from the University of Adelaide, Australia, and Yi Gu, from the University of Toronto, have generously lent their scholarly expertise to the TAP Review from the beginning, and we are delighted to make this relationship official.
The spring 2014 issue of TAP will feature translations of articles from Asian languages in to English, and in the fall of 2014, TAP editorial board member Anthony Lee will edit a special issue on Asian diasporas and photography.
There are many more questions to be asked about archives. As always, we hope this issue will serve to stimulate new conversations.
With best wishes,
Editor, Trans Asia Photography Review