I've just started looking at Michael Abrams' fascinating and thoughtfully book Strange and Singular which explores the vernacular photograph and the snapshot (which I want to write about soon - hopefully after I have had a chance to talk to Michael). As an archivist/curator and as a photographer, such images have always fascinated me - although in recent years I have certainly become more interested in them.
In this vein, I've also been looking at the information about a current exhibit at the International Centre for Photography - Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art.
("Abdul Aziz holding a photograph of his brother, Mula Abdul Hakim, 1997" from the series "The Victor Weeps: Afghanistan" by Fazal Sheikh)
There was a good little review in the NY Times about it a while back headlined "Well, it looks like truth?"
And from the ICP info on the Exhibition:
...The archive of the title is less a thing than a concept, an immersive environment: the sum total of documentary images circulating in the culture, on the street, in the media, and finally in what is called the collective memory, the “Where were you when you heard about the World Trade Center?” factor.
Photography, with its extensions in film, video and the digital realm, is the main vehicle for these images. The time was, we thought of photographs as recorders of reality. Now we know they largely invent reality. At one stage or another, whether in shooting, developing, editing or placement, the pictures are manipulated, which means that we are manipulated. We are so used to this that we don’t see it; it’s just a fact of life.
Art, which is in the business of questioning facts, takes manipulation as a subject of investigation. And certain contemporary photographers do so by diving deep into the archive to explore its mechanics and to carve their own clarifying archives from it...
The second, far less well-known work that opens the show is a 1987 silk-screen piece by Robert Morris that does what the Warhol does but in a deadlier way. It too is based on an archival image, a 1945 photograph of the corpse of a woman taken in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Although such pictures initially circulated in the popular press, they were soon set aside in an ethically fraught image bank of 20th-century horrors. As if acknowledging prohibitions, Mr. Morris has half-obscured the woman’s figure with old-masterish strokes of paint and encased it, like a relic, in a thick black frame swelling with body parts and weapons in relief...("Floh: Bathers in Sea, 2000" by Tacita Dean)
Other artists present randomness as the archive’s logic. The casual snapshots that make up Tacita Dean’s salon-style “Floh” may look like a natural grouping. In fact they are all found pictures that the artist, acting as a curator, has sorted into a semblance of unity.
No single definition can convey the complexities of a concept like the archive. The standard view evokes a dim, musty place full of drawers, filing cabinets, and shelves laden with old documents, an inert repository of historical artifacts. Against this we have another view of the archival impulse as a way of shaping and constructing the meaning of images. It is this latter formulation that has engaged the attention of so many contemporary artists. Archive Fever explores the ways in which artists have appropriated, interpreted, reconfigured, and interrogated archival structures and materials. The principal vehicles of these artistic practices—photography and film—are also preeminent forms of archival material, and artists have used them in a variety of ways. The works presented here take many forms, including physical archives arranged by unusual cataloguing methods, imagined biographies of fictitious persons, collections of found and anonymous photographs, film versions of photographic albums, and photomontages composed of historical photographs. In spite of the diversity of subject matter, these works are linked by the artists’ shared meditation on photography and film as the quintessential media of the archive.
("The Fae Richards Photo Archive, 1993-1996" by Zoe Leonard)
I'm still personally exploring all these things, both with my own work and with the archives and vernacular photographs I come into contact with - all these things intrigue me - fiction, truth, memory, appearances, memento, history, identity..
(Oh, and there's also a big thick book of the show coming out: Archive Fever from Steidl)
("Untitled (Death by Gun), 1990" by Felix Gonzalez-Torres)