When I saw slide AQF.30 for the first time (or actually its digital reproduction), I thought for a second: wow! this is the Loggiato degli Innocenti by Brunelleschi, the famous Florentine Renaissance foundling hospital with its portico and the characteristic glazed blue terracotta roundels in the spandrels of the arches. It would have been too nice if VRC Director John Davis, who I asked to send me a slide “to adopt” in the context of this commendable initiative, had by chance sent me a picture of the very building that I can see from the main windows of ‘my’ photo archive, the Photothek of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, which is based in Palazzo Grifoni at Piazza Santissima Annunziata in Florence. However, my art historical gaze told me very quickly that the represented façade couldn’t belong to the Loggiato degli Innocenti: the obelisk and the surrounding buildings as well as details of the portico show that it is actually the so-called Leopoldine at Piazza Santa Maria Novella. The Leopoldine was originally also a hospice, the Ospedale di San Paolo, founded in the XIIIth century and completed in the XVth with the portico, which programmatically recalls Brunelleschi’s Loggiato.
According to the information kindly provided to me by John Davis, this slide is from the Architecture section of the slide collection, which is filed using an in-house classification system that was developed in an ad-hoc way over many years. The code “AQ” refers to Italian Renaissance architecture, and “AQF” means Italian Renaissance architecture in Florence.
But what do we actually see in this slide? The caption on the upper part of the slide frame tells it quite directly: “Florence: the flood of November 1966”. The ‘subject’ of the picture – to use the classical vocabulary of image archive classification – is therefore neither the Leopoldine nor this corner of the Piazza Santa Maria Novella during the flood, but the flood itself. So we are faced with contradictory statements given on the same slide frame: while the classmark AQF.30 refers to Renaissance architecture in Florence, the caption refers to the flood – and the photograph shows both. The VRC doesn’t have an individual catalogue record for this slide, but a closer examination shows that it has clearly been copied from a printed source. Thus, the fact that it exists within the VRC seems not to be accidental, but rather intentional: somebody wanted to have a representation of the Florentine flood of 1966 in the slide collection, probably because of its enormous echo in the media at that time (indeed the slide can be dated in the late 1960s or early 1970s). The slide had then to be classified within the existing classification system and so it ended up in the Renaissance Florentine architecture drawer because of the Leopoldine façade visible in the background. In the Florentine Photothek it would have been probably placed in the section “City views” in the folder dedicated to Piazza Santa Maria Novella. It’s difficult to say which solution is more appropriate – and in the end it doesn’t matter. It’s much more important to point out that classification is never neutral, always arbitrary: a person took the decision to put a certain slide in one particular drawer and not in another one. This is everyday life in an archive and especially in a photo or slide archive. This choice, like many others, is just one step in the complex decision-making process by which photographs or slides are acquired, classified, stored and used in an archive (in the analogue as well as in the digital era), and contributes to shaping the meaning (or meanings) of the photographic object.
Thus, slide AQF.30 cannot be reduced only to its visual content. It is not just an image. It has a frame (the original frame from the late 1960s – early 1970s, as John Davis told me). It has a size (which is quite obvious to me, born in the analogue era, but will my little children be able to figure out how the size of a slide judging by its digital surrogate?). It has labels with captions (the code AQF.30, formed not by continuous lines but by dots, was probably not typed with a typewriter but printed with a label printing machine – I spent a lot of time analyzing the digital reproduction in a zoomed view and searching in internet for comparisons). It has a red dot (most of the slides in the collection have coloured dots, which is part of a colour-coding system intended to aid retrieval and re-filing). It has signs of deterioration through use. It has a back side that I don’t know at all. It has a weight (is it a long-lasting heavy mount or a more ephemeral, cheaper light frame?). It has the material qualities of the slide film (in the digital reproduction the characteristic reddishness of old slides is only scarcely visible).
I’m writing this statement for the preservation of the VRC slide collection from Florence, as I was unable to visit the VRC to choose a slide in person. So I can just imagine an entire set of feelings and sensations related to the material experience of this slide: the surface, the smell, the sound of the metal drawers – even only imagining them acts like Proust’s madeleine and activates memories from my university years. I don’t even know the rest of the content of the drawer in which AQF.30 is stored and I don’t know the entire photo collection, the archival context in which this slide unfolded its biography as a material object. But I know that its disposal would be an irreparable loss for the Manchester School of Art, for British and European culture, for the artistic and research activities of future generations, and also for many individuals.
What I’ve tried to trace here are just some of the investigative paths that open up if we consider photographs as material objects that exist in space and time, in social and cultural contexts. They are endowed with a biography or biographies that are in large part transacted within the archive. So the archive is not just the place in which photographs are preserved, but also the place in which these biographies can be restored to them. However, for this to happen, there needs to be a shift from the utilitarian approach based on the content of the photographic record, to a wider understanding of the functional context of its provenance, production and sedimentation. In archives, memory is not simply kept alive, but constantly shaped and reshaped, and in this process of epistemic sedimentation and formation archivists and users play, whether consciously or not, an active role. That’s why in adopting this slide I actually intend to adopt the entire VRC photo collection.
Photographs and archives are autonomous research objects, but also “artist’s quarries” (J. Schmid) and, in the end, “objects of affect” (E. Edwards). These are all reasons to support the VRC photo collection and subscribe to The Florence Declaration for the Preservation of Analogue Photo Archives (www.khi.fi.it/en/Declaration), which aims to promote a greater understanding of the inescapable value of photographs and analogue archives for the future of studies in historic, human and social sciences, as well as for our collective memory.