Reappropriation Photography Essay
Contemporary work in the photographic process is constantly changing and evolving. An example of this is through the use of reapropreation. This is when a photographer or artist takes the work of another and contextualises into an entirely new discourse. A present day example of such work is Silvermine by Thomas Sauvin; the project consisted of Thomas collecting negatives on the outskirts of Beijing that had been discarded by the original authors. He then proceeded to archive them and group images that shared aesthetic similarities, although this wasn’t just reappropriation this was something else.
Silvermine took place from 2009 until 2013 and consisted of Sauvin meticulously collecting colour negatives from an Illegal recycling site each month on the out skirts of Beijing. The authors of the negatives were the conventional everyday people of people of China, whom for individual reasons chose to discard of their negatives. Sauvin then proceeded to archive the material and have it scanned onto hard drives where he handpicked photographs that he found to be both visually compelling and aesthetically intriguing. After several years of processing this subject matter Sauvin randomly selected 100 final photographs that he published as five unique books each consisting of a theme. Including; TV’s & Fridges, One & Two, Marilyn & Ronald, Party & Transvestites and Leisure & Work. Sauvin states ‘’My goal is to recreate the excitement and randomness of discovering a picture in this way, I don’t want any editing that tells a chosen story because I think the story will create itself on its own, at every new discovery.’’1 Upon the project’s publication in 2013 it received very positive feedback; it was nominated for the best photobook of 2013 at the 6th international fotobook festival, Kassel. Silvermine was also named by Martin Parr as the best photobook of the year for the British journal of photography.
What Sauvin had accomplished with this project was an inside look into a slowly diminishing surplus of pedestrian colour negatives spanning twenty years of Chinese history from the perspective of its people, from 1985 when the first mainstream Kodak cameras came into fashion. To early 2005 when the digital process became more prominent and started phasing out colour film almost all together. He estimates that towards the end of the project he had archived and sorted through over half a million photographs. It was selective editing that allowed him to create a project that was not only a great insight into Chinese life over a twenty year period but also has become an unlikely contributor to the zeitgeist, through means of salvage, exploration and reappropriation. Barthes states that ‘’The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who created it… (but) it is language that speaks; not the author’’2. Certainty that statement is highly relatable as it is the photographs of this project that will give the viewer insight into the contemporary Chinese life style at the time not Sauvin. This is also the reason that he randomly selected the final 100 images. He wanted them to speak with their own voice.
When examining the discourse of reappropriation which was the framework of Silvermine, one must consider the source of the primordial material. Usually when dealing with reaproprated material the source of the artwork is already well renowned or was previously introduced into pop culture by another medium or artist. However in Sauvin’s case he arguably surpassed this form of reappropriation, as he found a wealth of material that was completely untapped and at risk of extinction. He then proceeded to publish the subject matter after very careful consideration, creating a body of work out of one hundred percent recovered material.
The conceptual artist Barbara Kruger voices he opinions on reapropreation. ‘’I’m interested in coupling the ingratiation of wishful thinking with the criticality of knowing better. To use the device to get people to look at the picture, and then to displace the conventional meaning that an image usually carries.’’3
It’s this pursuit into finding the thought provoking images that lurk within the banal of the everyday, which inspired Thomas to pour through thousands upon thousands of negatives, that he would purchase from the recycler by the kilo in hopes of finding the few needles in the haystack. The process from negative to computer screen was an intriguing one; Thomas employed a man to scan every photograph in his archive onto hard drives. He would then go through the process of selecting images that he found to be visually discursive. The Chinese photobook edited by Martin Parr and Wassink Lundgren puts forth that ‘’in their specificity, Sauvin’s pictures seem to encapsulate contemporary Chinese society’’.4 And ‘’the imagery of Silvermine also reflects the county’s Westernisation.’’5
In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Walter Benjamin argues that ‘’in the age of mechanical reproduction, art becomes reproducible and thereby gradually loses its traditional and ritualistic value, causing it to lose aura and authenticity.’’6 With general reappropriation this can be seen to be very true. However in the case of Silvermine, Sauvin salvaged the original art from the brink of certain destruction. Ergo he preserved the negatives and through means of reproduction he quite arguably voiced the ‘aura’7 of the individual images that would otherwise be lost and created for them a new authenticity as a group that form a cultural retrospective of China over a twenty year span.
Sauvin has also released another project with the subject matter from Silvermine that is another retrospective of Chinese culture and heritage; aptly titled Until Death Do Us Part. The focus of the project is the unexpected role that cigarettes play at Chinese weddings. It is custom for the bride to light a cigarette for every man at the service, then the bride and groom engage in some cigarette smoking games. The publication itself is the size of a cigarette box in the traditional Chinese colours ‘red’ and ‘gold’. Sauvin has shrewdly allowed us to perceive another discourse involving Chinese customs through his unique recovery of negatives, his style of reproduction and felicitous design. In the book Benjamin, Barthes and the singularity of photography Yacavone states that ‘’Inherent reproducibility and indexicality are generally held to be the two defining features of photography as a form of visual representation.’’8 Sauvin has most certainly considered indexicality in the categorization of the photographs for Until Death Do Us Part and has reproduced photographs that without his intervention would be lost. This means the project is a good example of Yacavone’s aforementioned statement.
Since 2006 Sauvin has solely worked as a consultant for the Archive of Modern Conflict, collecting Chinese works for them. The AMC itself is an independent organisation and publisher, whom published the Silvermine project for Sauvin. The AMC was first established in the early 90’s and the archive’s material is sourced both nationally and internationally by associates like Thomas. They specialise in collecting war and conflict related photographic & media materials. With some 4 million items in the archive consisting of; discarded snapshots, anonymous photographers work, commercial images as well as whole photographic projects in their entirety and in 2012 the archive purchased Mathew R. Isenburg’s collection of 20,000 pieces including early daguerreotypes & other analogue materials for $15 million dollars. Simon Baker Senior Curator of Tate comments upon AMC ‘’An eclectic and often deeply subversive London collection, the Archive of Modern Conflict holds a wealth of vernacular material relating to the history of war including regimental albums, postcards, posters, objects and even entire photographic archives from defunct institutions and publications.’’9
Observing what the archive as an entity has done for the development of photography itself one can see that through the organised collecting, filing and sorting of subject matter a photographer is able to create a project or collection that has depth. They are able to use such depth to expand what the demographic consider contemporary art. From Martin Parr’s photobook collection to Silvermine the inherent use of archiving work has greatly contributed to the creative atmosphere and has brought about the age of narrative to the contemporary community. Timothy Prus the founder of the AMC mentions how narrative is found through his archive. ‘’I would say it’s a collection of primarily photographs but manuscripts and objects as well, some of them to do with narratives that are forgotten and others to do with re-enlivening narratives that we know well but maybe have only got a one-sided view of. So in a sense it’s a collection of stories.’’10 It is through the use of archiving that work is preserved, remembered and is free to be received as many different connotations through a variety of discourses, depending on whom ever may view the work.
In conclusion these processes of archiving, reproduction and reappropriation are all a part of the crucial process of creating a project that relies on pre-existing material. Suavin himself is an agent of reappropriation through the modernisation of preceding and otherwise forgotten Chinese photography and culture. He recently set up an account on the digital platform Instagram to post the Silvermine images and stated ‘’I find it quite interesting to post solely analogy photos from the last century onto a platform that is so much about the present and the digital.”11 This is a good example of how his individual photographic process is succeeding in the here and now. The Archive of Modern Conflict is very much on the same wavelength as Suavin in relation to the persistent collecting & archiving of predated media material that is both specific and compelling. The archive as a contributor to the expansion of photography is undoubtedly a key component and for many is the root to understanding more about the medium. It is through the archiving of definitive photography that will allow us to not only observe the great photographers of the past but will aid us in the referencing of the mediums evolution and therefore allow it to continue to distort, grow and persist in entirely new directions in the future.
1 E, Guillerme. (2012). Beijing Silvermine - Thomas Sauvin. Available: https://vimeo.com/40689438. Last accessed 21st Jan 2016.
2 Barthes, R (1966). Death of the author 2nd ed. France. 33-34.
3 Peter Howard Selz, Kristine Stiles (1996). Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings. 2nd ed. .: .. 377.
4 Zheng, G Lum, R Parr, M Lundgren, W ( (2015). The Chinese Photobook. London : Aperture. 417.
5 Zheng, G Lum, R Parr, M Lundgren, W ( (2015). The Chinese Photobook. London : Aperture. 417.
6 Benjamin, W (2008). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. 2nd ed. London Penguin Books ltd. 32.
7 Benjamin, W (2008). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. 2nd ed. London Penguin Books ltd. 32.
8 Yacavone, K (2012). Benjamin, Barthes and the Singularity of Photography. London : Continuum. 220.
9 Baker, S. (2014). War photography: what happens after the conflict?. Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/11213266/War-photography-what-happens-after-the-conflict.html. Last accessed 21st Jan 2016.
10 SOURCE Photographic Review. (2012). The Archive of Modern Conflict . Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=m0Gd_0KUkYM. Last accessed 21st Jan 2016.
11 Connors, A. (2014). Thomas Sauvin’s Beijing Silvermine. Available: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/thomas-sauvins-beijing-silvermine. Last accessed 21st Jan 2016.
Disclaimer: I do not own any of the photographs in this essay nor am i attempting to take credit for them. They are for educational purposes only.