Archive Album and Other Images
Author: Stephen Connolly
Format: Short film
Published: February 2023
Within the artists’ cinema, films exploring personal narratives at the intersection between public and private include John Akomfrah’s Stuart Hall Project (2013), and the work of the artist Luke Fowler over the last fifteen years. Auto-ethnographic approaches have been explored by Miranda Pennell (Colonel Bunny 2010; Host 2015) and creative-documentary films in recent festival circulation include Radiograph of a Family (Firouzeh Khosrovani 2019) and Film About a Father Who (Lynne Sachs 2020). These works, all exploring very diverse materials from each other, are personal and essayistic; this is a protean field of moving image practice.
A cornerstone of the study of this field of personal and public biography as essay film, Experimental Ethnography (Russell 1999), offers this definitional guidance -
Autobiography becomes ethnographic at the point where the film- or videomaker understands his or her personal history to be implicated in larger social formations and historical processes. … The subject “in history” is rendered destabilized and incoherent, a site of discursive pressures and articulations. … Autoethnography is a vehicle and a strategy for challenging imposed forms of identity and exploring the discursive possibilities of inauthentic subjectivities. (Russell, 1999, p. 276)
This invocation of instabilities, contingent and complex relationships with wider social formations, are salutary rubrics for working with personal family archives in media aiming for a wider audience. In a similar vein, yet from a different perspective, Laura Rascaroli (The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film, 2009) explores the homologies between the personal investment and critical engagement of the literary and the film essay forms. Within moving image practice in the academic realm, these forms productively intersect with the practice-as-research as a method, valuing paths of investigation that are chary of disciplinary entanglements and accepting of researcher subjectivity.
As the filmmaker amongst my generation of siblings, I have been the sleeping custodian of a collection of family images for the past decade. These include several hundred Kodachrome slides of our young parents and family living in early 1960s North America. The death of my father in 2018 presented a rationale to re-explore this archive. An initial survey of the materials suggested narrative and ethnographic potential for a film. After a gestation period through the pandemic, Archive/ Album and Other Images (2022, 36’) is the result.
In general, my practice-as-research work mobilises ‘spatial’ or ‘placial’ image repertoires as visual narratives and foregrounding the navigation of (actual) spaces. This film includes these topics but also continues an intermittent second strand of my practice, focusing on visual images as objects; their relationship with the projection of identity; and as products of social activities. Examples of works in this idiom include the shorts Film for Tom (12’, 2005), Folkestone Obscura (14’, 2004).
This is a project of re-framing a family archive as a proposition for time to come and inviting an audience to consider how a private archive can be juxtaposed with public images. The title Archive/Album and Other Images is quite explicit in designating two materials – Archive and Others, and if first term is primary or under purview, the Others speaks for itself. At the same time, Archive and Album are in juxtaposition; the ‘/’ an equivocation on the scope or range of private images available, and implying uncertainties as to their implied value of a selection of them. Indeed, the film centres on a culture of secrecy in the family. Likewise, the archive can be framed as a withholding of information, and in thus this double sense of the obscured is paramount, rather than the details of the story itself. The terminological basis of the title also signals the film is not concerned with exploring the family archive as an exercise in memory or nostalgia.
The archive as generative of propositions for the future is an idea briefly proposed in Derrida’s Archive Fever. (1996) For him, in its selection of material for preserving, the archive pre-judges the interests and necessities of times ahead. Derrida suggests –
The archive has always been a pledge, … a token of the future. To put it more trivially: what is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way. Archivable meaning is also and in advance codetermined by the structure that archives. (Derrida, 1996, p. 18)
In his further short comment, Derrida claims ‘archivization produces as much as it records the event’. (1996 pp18) In other words, records created for the archive are generative of the act of collecting information, an event with ramifications beyond the archival requirements for data. Moving on to consider the photographic archive, Derrida’s insight could apply to the photographic encounter – the event of the making of the image and its later reception. This schema bypasses the content-based approaches to the interpretation of photographs as visual images.
The visual theorist Ariella Azoulay offers a model for the event of photography as an assemblage of social relationships in the ‘civil contract of photography.’ The encounter of photographer, the photographed are mutually recognised; they ‘participate actively in the photographic act’ (Azoulay, 2012, p. 18). For Azoulay, the ‘photographed subjects’ act of addressing the spectator bears decisive weight,’ in this vision of the co-creation of the visual image and its meaning (p. 18). Overall, photography considered as an assemblage of social relationships,
…takes into account all the participants in photographic acts –– camera, photographer, photographed subject, and spectator –– approaching the photograph (and its meaning) as an unintentional effect of the encounter between all of these. (Azoulay, 2012, p. 21)
Although Azoulay’s concern centres on the reception of images of stateless subjects and struggles for social justice; this model can be generatively applied to the family photo archive. In so far as the ‘civil contract’ is entered into by the photographed subject and the spectator, these relations are also evident in photographic acts as shared objects between relations of kin, existing family members and yet to be formed relations with future kin.
By deploying Azoulay’s model, the agency and desire of those either side of the camera in family photography is thus acknowledged, as is the spectator. Hence the visual archive of biography of the family archive is co-created, tended, and embroidered with interpretative context as a deeply personal, but also social artefact.
To circle back to Derrida’s insights, this model explicitly recognises family photography as a future pledge. The interests of its protagonists remain weaved through its material as it is carried through the temporal succession of generations. This is a realisation of Derrida’s event of the production of materials for the archive; the assemblage of social relations attending to the production of the archive.
As the visual resources of a family archive brought into the moving image, the spectatorship on photographic act can be staged and registered on screen. If reflexive approaches to filmmaking are employed, the act of spectatorship can be mirrored in screen action and reaction to the images as objects. In Azoulay’s terms, this staging unites the gazes of subject and spectator, the moving image capturing the temporally and spatially dispersed final term of the three-way triad of photography’s civil contract. The spectatorship of family photographs – in their silence – can be visualised on screen.
It is this invocation that has a relationship with reflexive approaches to filmmaking – in which the status of the filmmaker is made evident and informs the text – but is not quite the same – as in this case, the reflexivity is deeply tied to the specificity of the content – as media artefact as well as kin – that looks beyond the filmmaking machine. These entanglements of the family archive, spectatorship and staging as potentials the moving image can address, deeply informed the making of Archive/Album… . If this research can be boiled down to addressing a single research question, it could be posed as such –
How can a film in an autoethnographic mode address an encounter with and spectatorship of – its own materials.
In summary, the research question engages with three strands of academic work; the autoethnographic filmmaking mode as explored by Russel; observations by Derrida on the archive; and an engagement with Azoulay’s work on the photographic act as an encounter of participants in image making and spectatorship. In much of its treatment of content, the film materialises Russell’s definitions of autoethnographic moving image. In the additional harnessing of Derrida and Azoulay’s ideas lies the further work the film is undertaking in the family archive subject area.
Archive/Album and Other Images is in dialogue with academic fields of visual studies and fine art / photography. The film uses methods from the artists’ cinema to explore these ideas of the social construction, the narrative potential and lacunae, and memory in family photography. As method, the artists’ cinema foregrounds space and place; the haptic; the materiality of images as objects; cinematic duration; within the essay form, polyvalency and contingency in narration; and visual and acoustic montage and counterpoint.
These registers of the artists’ cinema are used to address a family archive within three constructed narratives in the film. A private narrative is constructed from the slides of a family album. A public narrative is constructed from archive materials germane to the space race in the 1960s. A present day narrative is constructed around the sorting of the archive and the family memory by the filmmaker (private), unfolding against recent times of the pandemic (public). The three narratives intersect thematically. In this way, the film constructs a semi-autoethnographic film work, centring on my father’s emigration to North America in the early 1960s and its documentation in the family photographs.
A normative chronology of biography is uses to sequence the family photography. This method both mirrors the order of the family album, the container of the photographs; and establishes a platform against which a rupture in the narrative, my father’s breakdown, can be explored. The multi-layered nature and thickness of this method allows for audience interest in a subject, considered in isolation, of limited affective reach. The father, the central subject of Archive/Album is a private person of few words. In his absence, his son, the present-day filmmaker shares his mixed feelings about his legacy. These intersecting layers of enunciation fold back on and expand on the themes in the film.
As a complement to the spoken narration, the haptic is accessed in imagery to widen the affective reach of the film. Defined by Tina Campt as a ‘multisensory modality of contact and relationality,’ these static shots of ‘managed landscapes’ (urban parks), are arranged in a thread of repetition and difference to accompany the present-day narration (Campt, 2019, p. 43). The visualisation is in dialogue with artists’ cinema traditions as exemplified by John Akomfrah and Luke Fowler mentioned above. This identifiable, ongoing present also lays the conditions for the diegetic act of spectatorship on the materials of the archive. A nod to reflexivity, this move also indexes the social construction of act of photography and its reception (Azoulay, 2012). These methods anchor the film in dialogue with current studies of the visual and specifically photography.
This is a film devoted to the materials of its archive yet is generative of additional contexts for the archive in a reflexive and poetic way. The incorporation of the act of spectatorship within this film and the transposition of Derrida and Azoulay to this novel context I hope inspires practitioner colleagues.
I am hoping to work with the Family Ties Network on a touring program of artists’ work dealing with family and memory in the 2023. I look forward to sharing the work with colleagues on Screenworks and in other academic contexts in the year to come. This kind of work is clearly not aimed at a wide audience; rather it aims for an appreciative one.
Peer review of film
I thank again the reviewers for their comments and consideration.
A wider question is whether this public platform is the place for re-drafting films. In my experience of working with edits, both as a teacher, but also as a filmmaking peer where often extensive edit reviews are undertaken, this is a process undertaken within a particular point in the post-production process. Unpacking and re-editing the sound is extremely laborious; changes are too late after the sound mix.
As a cultural practice, reviewing the edit of a work in progress is private. Part of the practice of advice giving to filmmaking peers, is trust and inside knowledge of the practice and agenda of the advised. The provenance of a review is important to its recipient and informs any actions that may follow.
A final thank you to the reviewer for the edit suggestions.
Akomfrah, J. (2013) The Stuart Hall Project (film).
Azoulay, A. (2012) The Civil Contract of Photography. Cambridge, Mass: Zone Books.
Campt, Tina M. 2019. The Visual Frequency of Black Life: Love, Labor, and the Practice of Refusal, Social Text, Vol. 37, No 3, 25-46, Duke University Press
Derrida, J. (1996) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. (s.l.): University of Chicago Press.
Hall, S. (2017) The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP.
Khosrovani, F (2019) Radiograph of a Family (film)
Pennell, M. (2010) Colonel Bunny (film)
Pennell, M. (2015) Host (film)
Rascaroli, L. (2009) The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film. New York: Wallflower Press.
Russell, C. (1999) Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Sachs, L. (2020) Film About a Father Who (film)
 Three screen iteration of this project realised as The Unfinished Conversation, Tate Britain 2013
 Work in this idiom by Luke Fowler includes – Pilgrimage From Scattered Points (2006), All Divided Selves (2011), The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the deluded followers of Joanna Southcott (2012).
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission for publication with no amendments.
What are the main claims and purposes of the work?
In Stephen Connolly’s essay film Album/archive and other images, he explores connections between his family archive of photographs, the space race, and the time of film production, defined by the restrictions of covid. Stephen expertly weaves together three elements; autoethnography filmmaking as an exploration of the public and personal (Russell) the archive as future-facing (Derrida), and the photograph as an act, a meeting of participants in image-making and spectatorship (Azoulay).
Does it seem to make a genuine new contribution to knowledge or understanding of
This outstanding example of a short essay film which examines the porous borders between a personal family history and a public history of space exploration makes a strong contribution to creative practice research. It is elegiac, provocative and engrossing. The images move between the intimate and personal, including his favourite walk with his dog in a woodland space and interviews with his mother, to the public via archives and other public spaces. At times, he uses the rhythms of editing to show the rhythms of a life interrupted as he tells us his father suffered a breakdown. As he writes, spaces are important here—his family space exemplified by photographs, his father’s space of work and beyond, Space where the US placed its dreams of modernity and success. The soundtrack of this film is particularly strong. Stephen often layers multiple aural experiences, complicating ‘simple’ visual material with additional meaning and effect. His voice is intimate and engaging. At times he speaks as if to us, other times he uses aspects of an interview, another layering effect that asks us to think again about relationships between the past and present. There is a standout moment for this reviewer where text on screen tells us that he could not ask his mother about his father’s first breakdown, not wanting to upset her. He asks, does this reticence make him a failure as a filmmaker? Here Stephen acknowledges autoethnographic concerns of how we must tell our own stories, but at the same time be aware of what effect we may have on those close to us, whose stories overlap our own. At no times does the theory overtake the personal, nor the other way around.
How strong is the research and theoretical context of the accompanying written statement?
The accompanying research statement is well-written and theoretically strong and engaging. Stephen clearly lays out his thinking and research that propelled his creative practice research. It is interesting that he does not engage with theories of photography and memory, for example Hirsch or Barthes, but his clarity of focus does not in the least detract from this very strong work.
Are there particular changes that you would deem either necessary or helpful for the work to
No changes are required.
Review 2: Invite resubmission with major revisions of practical work and/or written statement.
In preface to this review, I’d like to emphasise that these words are written and conveyed with the heartfelt intention of making the work stronger. I pay close attention to textual detail, and that is because I recognise the intricacy of what the author is engaging with, and whilst I feel that there are some very strong ideas in the mix here, there are some problems with execution that can be usefully and productively addressed.
Firstly, one has to say that this is a successful essay film, in that it approaches a complex of ideas and notions in a way that both mobilises a generic set of tropes that the viewer can navigate and understand, and also attempts to push past those stock gestures towards the articulation of a specific point of view on the issue of autobiography, the traces of the past left in albums/archives and the nature of filmmaking as a duty to continuity, and to truth. The film made use of several thematic/motif ‘lines of enquiry’ running through the text, including representations of nature, elisions of the author’s father’s work with the work of the son as an archivist-filmmaker, the scanning of the moon’s surface, and the scanning (in the sense of reading and reproducing) of images in albums, and the extended metaphor/juxtaposition of the father’s breakdown, and the breakdown in Derrida’s notion of the duty of the archive to the future. To this end, the film deployed several effectively dense thematic clusterings that were true to the tradition of essayistic documentary/ video art that the author set out to work within.
One of the most fascinating ‘lines of enquiry’ was the correlation between the archive and the album, where the film suggested that there was simultaneously a clear divide between the archive (official, public) and the album (personal, private), but that both depended on each other, and that the film was a meeting point for both. This kind of clustering is evident, for example: the moment (around 06.30) when the authors’ father’s camera is mentioned as part of a landmark in his father’s life, bought as part of a migrational job, the job part of a space-race milieu represented by archive of JFK, and the other images in the sequence at that point emanating from that very same camera, the sorting and editing of those images the deliberate work of the yet-to-be-born son (from the POV of the original images). The relationship here, and at other points, between an archive and album mode are delineated and hybridised to great effect.
The framing of this relationship between archive/album could have been more consistent. There were some passages where duration could have been manipulated more carefully. For example, when there are extended uses of one ‘kind‘ of image and sound (11:45; NASA archive section) the ‘lines of enquiry’ are not moved forwards as they might. It is perhaps worth considering that the piece is overall a little long, with a number of passages either not maintaining momentum, nor breaking it.
In a similar vein, it is worth considering re-placing the quotations used in the piece. Passolini’s early quotation (03:00) is immediately countered by the act of the filmmaker (and watcher) which might well be the aim, but the Derrida quotation towards the end of the film (32.37) is perhaps left too late. An earlier use, perhaps in conjunction with the Passolini, would have strengthened the album/archive duality, and pointed the viewer to the author’s pursuit of a break with the Derridian notion of the archive’s duty to the future. This is an interesting idea, and this medium would be a perfect one in which to bring out the polysemic ‘all-at-once-ness’ of Derrida’s reading of archives, and then of the author’s disagreement with that; for me this needs to come in earlier. Perhaps more could be made of such quotations to anchor the work in the underlying research? That is always a difficult question to answer, but one worth raising here as a possibility.
When passages evoke the notion of ‘breakages’ – where the purported utility of the film as a binding element for the multiple ‘lines of enquiry’ is challenged by the author – they do not always work as well as each other. For example. the post-breakdown sequence (22:50) is mimetic of breakdown, but this is a little cliched, and is perhaps an opportunity to do something else with the archive/album/Derrida breakdown storyline?
The same could be said for the chronological structure in which the life of the father is presented. Is there a way of problematising time here – of reflecting the complexity of the past/future dynamics of an archive/album, by refracting the chronology of the life reconstructed in the film? To some extent, this is managed by a level of reflexivity in the film, which is most evident at the beginning and at the end. Also the composition of the reflexive material – the ‘lo-fi’ sound quality – places the ‘out-of-frame’ questioning of the author amongst the other archive and amateur sources (as with the authentic piano recording), which works well. Could more have been made of this reflexive element? The author’s direct discussion, in the film’s conclusion (33:30), of the unreadability of the image and the need for pattern recognition, also point to a need to further complicate the overall narrative structure.
I thought that there was a nascent theme in the film that linked nature, framed almost as the gaze of nature, which you returned to on many occasions, which could have been brought out a little more. Was this possibly an evocation of a materialist aspect to the filmmaking, memory-making, archive-making processes? The notion that the material from which films (celluloid, electronic machines), rockets (minerals, chemicals) and memories (brain function) are made are of the world, and are of nature (however supposedly inanimate), perhaps needed emphasising as part of the textual weave of the continuities and breakages the film presented.
Generally, I would also comment that the written research statement gives a good survey account of the author’s position, but could do more to explain the specific methods used to examine specific areas of consideration. In a way, there are perhaps too many issues raised in the CONTEXT section, which are then not picked up satisfying in the much shorter METHODS section. The result is a gap between the text and the film which could be closed somewhat, enabling the author to bring the specific findings of the process out more precisely.