Of Memory and Collecting

“Image, Archive and Event:  Tracking the Archive’s Odyssey” Kicks off the MCSI Fall Lecture Series

Laura Wexler and Lauren Tilton, Yale University
Laura Wexler and Lauren Tilton, Yale University

The first MCSI lecture of the fall 2015 series, focused on the theme ARCHIVE, took place on Tuesday, September 15, 2015. Laura Wexler and Lauren Tilton, both of Yale University, came to Pitzer to talk about the changing relationship of the photograph to the archive.

Before they took the stage, Alexandra Juhasz, director of the Munroe Center for Social Inquiry, welcomed the audience and gave a special welcome to Lee Munroe, professor emeritus of anthropology and namesake of the Center. Munroe, along with his wife, the late Ruth Munroe, professor of psychology, were founding faculty members of Pitzer College.

Laura Wexler’s talk focused on the philosophical aspects of the archive as “treasure house” and what photographs represent. In her photographic memory workshop, she asks students to find a set (such as a family photo album), find a text (the story), and read the set against the text. This often changes the interpretation of the perceived reality. She also spoke of the many dangers facing archival materials, including fragility, obsolescence, neglect, destruction and cultural homogenization. In the archival world, the rise of technology and digitization has been a game changer that raises many questions. Evoking the metaphor of Odysseus entering the treasure house of the Cyclops, Wexler asked: Who has entered the archive? Who has taken the treasure out? Who defends it and how in an era when many archives are held in private hands?

Dorothea Lange, 1936. “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”

Lauren Tilton then demonstrated the Yale Photogrammar Project, a web-based platform of 170,000 photographs created by the United States Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Office of War Information. Many of these photos are iconic images of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl: Dorothea Lange’s photograph, now known as “Migrant Mother,” is an instantly recognizable image. But there are thousands more images in this collection that have remained unseen until now. The physical images and negatives are filed in the Library of Congress and stored in large banks of file cabinets; access to these images is limited. With the power of modern technologies, we can now map and layer huge amounts of data and reimagine the archive. One of the most powerful features of the Photogrammar Project is the mapping which shows the places these photographers worked between 1935-1945. The user can drill down by photographer, region, state and county.

During the Q&A, the privacy of the subjects and the intrusion by the photographer and us, the viewer, into the lives of the subjects was questioned. Professor Munroe said that the study of human beings is, by its nature, intrusive, and he felt that the Photogrammar Project was a magnificent contribution to anthropology.

For more information on the the Photogrammar Project, visit https://photogrammar.yale.edu/.

For more information about the Munroe Center for Social Inquiry and Ruth and Lee Munroe, visit www.pitzer.edu/mcsi.