Computing the Past

image_162_18As Shooting the Past, BBC2’s acclaimed 1999 television drama begins, the Fallon Collection, a large, prestigious London-based photographic archive, is about to be removed from its premises.  It is to be sold, dismembered or destroyed–so that a new American business school can occupy the space.  But when the building’s new American owner, Mr. Anderson, arrives one morning expecting to find an empty building, not only is the archival material is still in place, but to his considerable frustration the staff—with one suspected exception—has been unaware until now that they and the collection were under legal obligation to leave—by the end of the week.


The sense of alarmed resistance among the archive staff and anger among the Americans is immediately palpable, conveyed through Stephen Poliakoff’s superb writing and direction, and superlative performances by the leads: Timothy Spall is Oswald Bates, the archivist with an astonishing visual memory, able to make “connections” among disparate parts of the collection; Lindsay Drummond is Marilyn Truman, the archive’s efficient, diplomatic administrator and Oswald’s putative “boss;” Liam Cunningham is new owner, Christopher Anderson, who can not really understand why these people are obstructing his plans and failing to keep their agreements.  Neither he—nor, perhaps, we viewers—initially appreciate the emotional intensity with which the archive’s close-knit staff — five in total – resists the threat: the possibility that the photographs could be destroyed or, nearly as unthinkable, dispersed.  The two sides are mutually incomprehensible at the outset, and the issue is probably not very clear to the audience either. Only as the story unfolds do we learn what is really at stake.


At one level this seems like a story about a “new” culture eclipsing an older one. The boxes of paper photographs (the filming was done in the Hulton Collection, now part of Getty Images), the look of long, shelf-lined corridors, darkrooms and enlargers, leisurely lunches and in-group loyalties are identified with England.  The Americans, by contrast, have new mobile telephones and computers, are impatient with delays and insensitive to what I’ll call, for now, “the presence of the past”.  In the end, they “win,” broadly, yet also make some important concessions.  But I’d like to propose a different reading of Shooting the Past, namely a struggle between two competing models of photographic “memory.”  Here, the Americans represent the “old” view, and the English archival team who, with Oswald as their rather improbable visionary, really grasp the future, including the positive potential of digitization.


Both sides understand the photographs to carry information about the past, that is, to function in some sense as memory.  To Mr. Anderson, the archive is a collection of objects with values determined by various factors—age, condition, but above all an aesthetic quality grounded, I would say, in an unexamined analogy between photographs and paintings.  The value of the whole collection then becomes, for him, a simple sum of all the independent values.  The total will determine whether the collection is worth the cost of its storage.  Oswald’s thinking is, at a minimum, far subtler.  I’d like to suggest that he thinks of photographs as an extension, or externalization of human memory itself.  His own role, then, is to activate, energize, or as we’d be more likely to say now, to access that memory.  He obsessively remembers the photographs, tirelessly seeks surprising connections among them, because he senses in this vastly enlarged memory the tantalizing possibility of remembering—in a sense thinking–collectively.


Oswald is difficult.  He’s intelligent, articulate and so steeped in his own exceptional perspective as to have no patience for what he considers stupid—or more exactly, backward perspectives, Mr. Anderson’s prominently among them.  He’s rude, presumptuous, and sly.  But the archival staff has long since come to the realization that Oswald, exasperating as he can be, spells the difference between a lot of old pictures and a magical, endlessly surprising and revealing lot of stories, connections, revelations—bearing on the present.  Oswald can, as he is always saying, “make the connection,” link photographs to one another and to the preoccupations of the present, link them in ways that surprise and reveal exactly because together they reach beyond any single human memory. The staff accept Oswald, treasure him — warts and all, because of his memory—not only because it is prodigious in scale and incredibly fast, but also because, in the final analysis, he uses it with enormous generosity toward others.  Oswald forms the core, that is, of an implicit, but strong and sustaining set of loyalties, mutual tolerance and respect—a group of insiders capable of resisting outsiders.


To Oswald, then, the threat of the archive being destroyed or dismantled quite literally registers as a threat to the real functioning of his own memory, his identity.  This is true of all the staff members to some extent.  But one of the attractions of discussing these models through Poliakoff’s film is that the fiction makes the two positions—Oswald’s and Mr. Anderson’s—more “pure” and polarized than they usually are.  In the film they are taken up with enough clarity and force to confront one another, whereas most of us, most of the time are, like most of the archive staff, somewhere between the two, able to at once share Mr. Anderson’s “artistic” or “aesthetic” evaluation of photographs and to project the possibility of photographs as so many human memories that might, somehow, link up to form a community, a national, or even a human memory.  We don’t, as a rule, sense them as being in conflict.  Marilyn, the archive administrator, is “one of us” in the sense that even as she demonstrates her enormous respect for Oswald’s skills and commitments, she doesn’t entirely share them—at least not yet.  She knows that Oswald can be perverse, impossible as well as brilliant, and she is able, briefly, to empathise with Mr. Anderson’s position.  She doesn’t exactly believe that the two positions are inherently contradictory, and seeks a reconciliation: at one point she even sets out cull the collection, separating the “valuable” pictures from the others.  Oswald reads this move as betrayal. She can’t go through with it, in any case, and finally throws herself on Anderson’s mercy, pleading for a bit more time.


Oswald has a number of absurd and counterproductive responses to the impending disaster, and he actually carries out several of them.  There are admirable ones, too, however, among them a complex bid to show, rather than try to tell the American what this is about: Oswald sets about “making the connection” between the memory stored in the photographs and Anderson himself.  With no explanation, he asks Anderson for key data: his grandmother’s place of birth–Ireland; the name of small town in Virginia where he grew up, and most critically, a photograph of his mother.  From this slender start, Oswald does in fact make the connection, a persuasive, revelatory link between the American businessman and the English pictorial memory.  He tells no one.  He goes home and, after recording the story of the threat to the archive on audiotape, takes an overdose of barbiturates.  Exasperating to the end, he telephones Marilyn just as he is losing consciousness.

The plot at this point is largely carried through photographs.  I don’t have them, and in any case the details aren’t crucial here.  Suffice it to say that the pictorial links Oswald made, linking Anderson to his grandmother as a young woman in Ireland, in France, and eventually in the United States, prove to be a life-changing revelation to the receiver.  The new connections enable him to confirm or acknowledge repressed aspects of his own memory, experience, personality.  As if to underscore the difference between what Oswald has done and the more usual order of archival business, Poliakoff writes a very ordinary request into the script just as the story is reaching a climax: someone wants pictures of all the Prime Ministers of Great Britain in the 20th century.  So, in the midst of the staff’s—but particularly Marilyn’s–intense struggle to “think like Oswald,” to grasp the connections he’s barely suggested, the archive secretary quickly assembles the pictures, asks Marilyn to confirm that they are complete, and it’s finished.  It’s easy –  and very dull by comparison to the rich, strange, twists and turns in the emerging story they are trying to “connect” to Anderson.

Oswald’s work is, in a word, creative.  There is an unmistakable tone of discovery, of astonishment and – yes — joy at both poles of the dramatic tension as these connections are revealed.  And yet familiar models of creativity, themselves lodged in models of heroic individuals in the arts and sciences, don’t seem to accommodate Oswald or the staff or the archive very well.  In a book first published in the mid-1980s called Into the Universe of Technical Images, the philosopher Vilém Flusser (1920-1991) introduced a rather different model of creativity that seems to me to fit this context better.  Flusser grounds the whole purpose of human life in communication—in the possibility of making real, creative contact with other people and in having that creative moment remembered past the point of any one person’s inevitable death.  As might be expected, Flusser was keenly interested in media.  But more to the point here, he divides communication into two broad types–discourse and dialogue, discourse being a kind of a formal consensus, like “broadcast” news, and dialogue being an exchange of information, explorative, provisional and often ephemeral.  We need both—discourse to distribute and preserve information. But dialogue, and only dialogue, actually creates new information.

Flusser defines dialogue as an exchange of information between at least two memories.  These memories may be human or artificial; the critical thing is that the exchange be genuine—no following a script (as in the request for photographs of the Prime Ministers), no staying within established categories, no unidirectional flows.  He accounts for one common model of creativity, the lonely genius alone in study or studio, as a dialogue between different aspects of the same memory, as Newton, for example, finding the “connection” between celestial mechanics and the dropping of an apple from the tree to the ground.  But exchange between people is invariably a far faster, more exciting process.  One memorable example he gives of creative dialogue involves a hypothetical chess game. The rules of the game are complex enough to provide nearly infinite possibilities and so considerable scope in themselves for creative, absorbing engagement; but the moment of genuine creativity—of “connection”–would come when both players look up from the game and decide—together–to change the rules, to really “play”.

This seems to me a more congenial framework for Oswald, someone who is absolutely delighted with his job (In a quiet moment he remarks to Marilyn on how lucky they all are to be able to float above, to speculate about the photographs), who has a small group around him who reflect, confirm, both his stubborn strangeness and his creativity.  In Flusser’s model, one might identify him as a thinker of the age of external memory, a philosopher who, through the technology of photography, has gained access to an artificial memory much longer and more comprehensive than his own, a chance to “play” with people he could never meet, places he will never go.  At one point he dares Mr. Anderson to set him a task–to find something in the archive within 5 seconds.  It is like he is putting himself in competition with an artificial memory — something that could make connections faster, more efficiently that he can himself—something Mr. Anderson – because he does not understand the archive as artificial memory — does not see at all.  Oswald does not bother to mask his contempt.

In attempting suicide, Oswald clearly registered the threat to the archive—to its coherence and to his association with it—as a threat to his life.  And that makes sense, for given the extent to which he had invested his own memory in that specific collection, the extent to which his colleagues shared the sense of creative play, he was facing the loss of  himself, his unique position, identity.

Shooting the Past is, of course, a fiction.  It was filmed in the real-life London-based Hulton Picture Collection, established by the publishing magnate Edward Hulton.  From the core holdings of Picture Post, the well-known British magazine published between 1938 and 1957, Hulton enlarged the collection through the subsequent acquisition of other collections from Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere.  Shooting the Past was filmed near the time the collection was sold, intact, to Getty Images, where it merged with Archive Film and Photos, New York, forming a resource of some three million images.  Shooting the Past’s fan website claims that the Hulton Collection can now be accessed online.  But for what it’s worth, I was unsuccessful in my attempts to do so—the “archival” images I was able to locate dated from as long ago as 2005!

This is not at all in any way intended as a slight to the monumental achievement of scanning and cataloguing literally millions of images.  But it is to say that the most exciting possibilities of artificial memory still seem quite distant.  By this I mean the prospect of being able to “remember” three million images, to do what Poliakoff imagined Oswald’s memory could do, namely “play” with the superhuman quantities of information, find connections across decades and continents, links among, say, faces, costumes, architecture, landscapes, build connections into narratives, bind them with text-based records (as they are in Shooting the Past).

When I asked our archivist at Falmouth what she would do if forced to decide between keeping paper photographs and digitizing the images she was, it’s fair to say, alarmed at the question, but also quick to answer in favour of paper.  The reason was that the durability of paper is – although limited, at least known; the durability of digital storage is not.  It is a persuasive point.  This is rarely, if ever, the real choice, however.  Almost anyone is happy to digitize if–always a big “if”—the equipment and expertise can be found to do it, and the process poses no threat to paper. With this brief reconsideration of Shooting the Past I rather hope to have raised a different question, a different reason to digitize. That is the possibility that digitization may eventually realize a promise that was always inherent in photography, namely the future prospect of creating a shared visual memory far larger, longer, and richer and more flexible than any we have ever known.