Commissioning Editor, Unseen
Combining prose with photographs from an abandoned archive, Pablo Lerma’s multilayered photobook plays with history, memory and fiction.
Published as part of the featured project
Knowing nothing about the negatives – beyond the fact that they’d been left behind when a photo store closed down, and purchased at a New York flea market – the writers Pablo Lerma commissioned for 'Greenfield. The Archive' set to work researching, speculating, and creating narratives of their own. Charged with the same brief, Ish Doney attempts to understand why these negatives were never collected.
There’s something strange about a photograph that neither the photographer nor the subject have ever seen.
Dot stands squinting and laughing in the sunlight, wrapped in only a towel, her bare feet hidden in the grass. We can see her on page 84 of Pablo Lerma’s Greenfield. The Archive. Small in black and white, she seems unaware of the camera. Did the moment change when she heard the shutter click? Was she angry or embarrassed? Did she want to know what would happen to the picture? And who was the photographer? Fred, perhaps. The man she would marry. Maybe he promised her he’d take care of it – it was a good photo, he wouldn’t destroy the negative, but only the two of them would ever see it.
Looking at Greenfield. The Archive is troubling. It’s not that the images are disturbing; in fact, they’re very ordinary. Vernacular photographs of white families at home, on holiday, outside, and with their pets. Some images – like the one of Dot in the towel – raise questions, but what’s really troubling is the way these photographs came to be an archive. They were tucked into 72 labeled envelopes, left behind when a photography store closed down in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and later bought by Pablo Lerma at a New York flea market as ‘The forgotten negatives’.
There are stranger and more striking images in the collection, but it’s this picture of Dot that sticks with me. It gets to the heart of what bugs me about this archive, to this question: Why were these negatives left behind? Tasked with providing a possible backstory for these images, and with only a couple of notes scribbled on the envelopes and the images themselves as context, I’ve come up with some possible answers:
1) Greenfield’s photographers were more interested in the activity of photographing than the images themselves. Without the object, the process becomes more deliberate. The exercise of grouping your friends and family, having them shuffle a little to the left… or surprising Dot in the kitchen, setting off the flash just to see the look on her face. The photograph is less important than the moment it captures. The Greenfield archive would be larger if Fred hadn’t realised it would be cheaper not to put film in the camera in the first place. No wonder the photo store went out of business.
2) Word War I… the Great Depression... World War II… the droughts and wildfires… life was precarious and the town of Greenfield did not want to be forgotten. After much debate, they settled on a time capsule. Resources were pooled to cover the cost of film and the photo store agreed to develop the photographs for free. But town politics and a poorly planned budget conspired; the capsule itself never materialised and the negatives sat safe in their envelopes in a box in the back room of the photo store. Dot wanted to come and claim the ones of her, but Fred said no, that would be admitting defeat.
3) These seemingly happy moments – these weddings, picnics and holidays – weren’t happy for everyone. Linda Henkel, a cognitive psychologist, has proven that taking photographs helps you forget. Something in the click of the shutter relaxes the brain so that it no longer feels responsible for remembering. The memories have been outsourced so the brain can focus on more important things. Fred wasn’t the photographer after all, it was his older brother Gary, who was too shy to profess his love for Dot. For Gary the camera was a point-and-shoot forgetting machine: the ultimate black box to lock away the people and places he didn’t want to remember. Gary had an agreement with the technician at the photo store that all of his negatives would be destroyed.
4) According to the Greenfield Recorder Fred Mulroney was in the film club in the 1970s, he even won the slide competition in ‘72. You might think this would make him more inclined to pick up his negatives, but sometimes photographs are stronger before you look at them. Fred was familiar with the elation of dropping film off for development. He could see each image in his head: perfectly exposed, precisely focused and in vibrant colour. The prints he collected never lived up to his mind’s eye view, so he stopped looking at them, stopped having them made, stopped collecting the negatives. He stayed on at the film club, becoming the Projectionist in 1974, but he said he was more interested in the technical side and would stick to showing other people’s images.
5) It’s simply a question of economics. Like a pawn shop for memories, Fred and the rest couldn’t afford to reclaim their snapshots. Times changed, Dot and Fred grew up and became more financially secure, but they assumed the negatives had been destroyed. Dot had daughters of her own, saw them leave home, find work in other cities, fall in and out of love. She thought about that moment – the sunlight, the texture of the towel, the voice of the man she would marry – and wondered what she looked like when the shutter clicked. But then she’d go back to washing the dishes.
Text by Ish Doney