Julian Lass

an archive

An archive occupies a small room in the basement of a newspaper office in Paris, and contains thousands of old photographs, many of them now fading. In a dusty box are photographs from the second world war, with type attached to the rear of each, some even glued across the front, and all have filing codes from a long-forgotten system, a witnessing to the unseen hands of an army of anonymous clerks. Pencil markings and underlinings identify important dates, names and places. I can likewise imagine the forgotten filing system that once ordered and mapped an archive of images waiting to be rediscovered that will provide an ontology of photographic potential. Three clerks greet me in the office, an older woman, who introduces herself as Marion, and is clearly in a position of authority, and her younger helper Manon, and a third woman, whose name I now forget and is therefore less easy to define. We descend three flights of stairs to reach the archive, and under their watchful eyes I hesitantly cross the threshold, and as I do so I no longer know where I am. The room is dimly lit, the furniture is of an antiquated design, and all manner of files and filing systems cover every available surface. The files continue down corridors, locked behind doors, shelves and filing cabinets with enormous wheels to separate them. After they show me where to start, they leave me alone. A haze of long-settled dust fills the air as I start to gather material, and I’m soon covered in a white shroud. Boxes of photographs of the dead are brimming with dust, the floor is covered with it. The inscrutable filing system is confounding, and I end up aimlessly wandering the shelves, picking up boxes randomly. I do not know how long I spent down there, all I remember is at some point seeing one of the women waiting for me in the doorway, “Comment ça va?” and I replied in my school French something that I know was incomprehensible. Inviting me over, I sat for a time with the three women among the mountain of material, working away with my small camera photographing the images I had chosen. I suddenly realised they were singing, quite unconsciously, until one of them turned to me laughing, as if to say, why not? I have no way of knowing if they were singing in French or English, but I understood every word. The movement they made as they scanned endless piles of photographs was always sideways and upwards, like a tailor sewing. Each photograph was then given some assigned number on computer, numbers, nothing but numbers, never names, so that they can be found again. Some of the photographs needed repairing in Photoshop, and the three women would do this out of the scraps of images that were available to them. Once or twice I saw them pull apart what they had edited together, dissatisfied, rejoining the fragments and pulling levels and curves here and there until they had created images of such perfection that they could have been taken moments ago.