Working as an independent stills photographer in the field of information and knowledge production, I quickly came to the understanding that the work I was producing constituted an archive, or was capable of being understood as an archive. This realization came from my early association and membership of the Afrapix collective and agency which operated from the early eighties until around 1991.
The photographers who constituted Afrapix all kept individual ownership and custody of the negatives of the work they produced, and Afrapix would then distribute the images via a photographic print. Photographers regularly produced more prints of the ones kept in the Afrapix library as these went out for reproduction in the various publications they were to be used in.
When Afrapix disbanded in the early nineties, the prints, which were still in the library were returned to the individual photographers to whom they belonged.
This sense of ownership of images, was rare from independent photographers in South Africa at the time. Also, in the seventies, the advertising industry had successfully lobbied government to revise the Copyright Act, investing the commissioning agents with ownership of images produced, which had not been the case prior to the revision.
So I was one of the early photographers to put in place and keep an efficient filing system, which allowed storage and efficient access of negatives to reprint. And when digital came along in the nineties, it was an easy transition to making these images available digitally, and in a way which facilitated easy access and management. All of these processes compounded my sense of the archive I was creating, and of course shaped the way I understood other archives.
I am aware of how at present various bodies of work, produced by independent photographers, groupings and publications alike, are finding their way into the archive. People like Bill Gates and others are recognizing the importance, and future value of these various collections, acquiring them and developing them into important assets. These records are in some cases being managed efficiently and constitute an important part of our body of knowledge of our recent past.
While my work has in a sense past its period of intense focus, which was in the first dozen years of post-apartheid ‘rosy glow’, it will no doubt be part of a growing record of this era, and as such will come into its own without a doubt in some later time still to come. I find challenges associated with this particular period of inactivity and diminished interest, in how to develop and manage this archive. There are still a great many images to be digitized, itself a laborious and costly process. How and where to do so in as efficient and cost effective a way as possible.
I have also found that images, which are generated digitally, present their own challenges in the archive. These are related to the technology of the medium, and are about the instability of the digital medium, DVDs corrupt and hard drives crash. As well as the rapidly changing and shifting nature technology and the costs related to this phenomenon. As an individual who is facing an economic environment in which paradoxically, the superior technology of the digitally produced images allows for a far greater degree of production, and with a great many more photographers entering the field, maximizing financial returns in this climate is increasingly difficult. So is meeting the costs of technology upgrades to keep abreast of the rapidly evolving platforms.
It is in light of some of these considerations that I have been drawn back to my original beginnings of analogue. Though this too is subject to its own disadvantages, such as the increasing costs associated with film being now a rare commodity, I still find it a more reassuring medium with regards to storage and archiving. Creating negative film, which is then printed in a traditional darkroom, allows for a silver-toned fine print, itself almost a dying art, each one being a one-off original, with the tangibility of a three dimensional object, and the luminosity only found in the organic nature of the silver halide based print.
The possibility then also exists for a high resolution scan to be done of the negative, and digital prints to be generated from this scan, as well as of course reproduction onto the printed page. It would seem that for some or all of these reasons, film is finding its way back into the worlds of especially fashion and art photography, allowing photographers to produce work with equipment that is a fraction of the cost for the digital equivalent. As well of course as the possibility of producing silver prints.
Although some effort has been made to source, access, restore and archive photographs, not nearly enough has been done. The stories of work being dumped, destroyed, lying neglected in boxes etc. are legion, and most independent photographers I know have had little or no assistance in this regard to safeguard their own work. It would seem that the onus is on oneself, and usually the task is so costly and labour intensive that most balk at the process.
Until we see photographic images in terms of their heritage, knowledge and information value, both to us, and future generations, we will continue to see the daily degradation and loss of the all the work not yet identified and safeguarded. A much more concerted effort needs to be made by museums and the national bodies constituted to engage with this important task.