Commissioning Editor, Unseen
Commissioning Editor, Unseen
Combining prose with photographs from an abandoned archive, Pablo Lerma’s multilayered photobook plays with history, memory and fiction.
At a New York antiques market, Pablo Lerma stumbled across a wooden box filled with negatives. Carefully organised into brown envelopes with labels such as “Judy”, “Boston” and “Carpenter Wedding”, the archive consisted of black and white film from the 1930s to the 1960s. The box had reportedly been found in a closed down photo store in the town of Greenfield, Massachusetts. “These are the forgotten negatives”, the antiques vendor told Lerma; they had been abandoned by customers who took them to be developed. Fearing the envelopes would be dispersed between buyers, Lerma quickly purchased the whole collection. “It was very natural for me to rescue this archive and do something with these pictures, instead of thinking they were going to be lost forever.”
Upon researching “Greenfield”, Lerma discovered that there are in fact 26 towns with this name in the United States. It occurred to him that, with its depictions of typical suburban American life, the archive could feasibly be from any one of these towns. The resulting photobook, Greenfield. The Archive, is an amalgamation of all such small American towns; an album depicting the archetypal experience of white, middle class families living the American dream in the mid-20th century.
Amateur photography was popular at this time, with millions of affordable cameras such as Kodak’s Brownie 127 sold in the 1950s and 1960s. Reading through old Kodak manuals, it was clear to Lerma who the intended customer was: affluent, straight, white men who wished to capture charming portraits of their wives and children – a norm which the Greenfield photographs reflect. For Lerma, this was an uncomfortable fact; as a married gay man with children, the nuclear families depicted in the Greenfield archive do not represent his own experience. To address the queer community's lack of representation in archives, the artist wrote an Epilogue which questions the removal of gay men’s stories from official history: “I can see myself, I can find ourselves, in these negatives [...] Maybe they just played a role in a time that was not prepared for them. Acting instead of being is not enough.”
With no memories or histories attached to these orphaned photographs, Lerma decided to take the fictionalisation of Greenfield further, by inviting 16 writers to create texts inspired by the archive. Each contributor was given three months, a copy of the photographs, and the instruction to write whatever they pleased. The responses offer a myriad of interpretations from entirely fictitious stories to meticulously researched genealogy, theoretical essays, and contemplative poetry. Precisely which of these texts contain elements of truth, and which are entirely invented, is impossible to decipher: a biographical text with detailed footnotes convincingly details the life of a bohemian writer is entirely fabricated. In contrast, Fred and Dot’s love story seems more fairytale than reality, despite being carefully verified by local newspaper articles and government records.
For Greenfield. The Archive, these texts have been compiled in an A5 booklet, which is attached to the front of a large album containing the archival photographs Lerma developed from the forgotten negatives. Each page corresponds with an envelope from the archive – which are also pictured in the book’s index – so that the original structure is retained. The layering of the two books allows readers to navigate the archive as they desire - one can view the photographs alone, or read the texts and flick through the album’s pages to the images described. This opens up endless encounters, activating the photographs in surprising ways. Even Lerma himself continues to make new discoveries: “I’ve been living with the images for three years now, but still I am surprised”.
The "real" story behind each photograph may have been lost when Greenfield’s photo store closed, but by combining photography with prose, and archive with fiction, Greenfield. The Archive challenges the assumption that a photograph must hold an inherent truth.
Text by Jenny Willcock, Unseen Platform