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Saving the Photographs

André Kertész, Clock of the Académie Française, 1929, gelatin silver print, 17.2 x 23.5 cm (6 3/4 x 9 1/4), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation and The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, reproduced courtesy of the Estate of André Kertész and the Jeu de Paume/French Ministry for Culture and CommunicationPhotographs are going to turn out to be really tricky to preserve, perhaps even impossible. Their fragility is only going to be compounded as they become completely obsolete. As I have speculated here before (What's a Negative?, November 30, 2003) à propos of a passage in Proust, even something like the idea of a negative image is eventually going to disappear from general knowledge. An article by Françoise Dargent (Les clichés de l'Etat dans le flou, August 4) for Le Figaro recounts the accusations of major donors of photography collections against the French government. They claim that the government's photographic collection, owned now by the new museum created by merging the old Centre national de la photographie with the Musée du Jeu de Paume. (Ionarts was there for the first time last summer.) Just how many photographs are we talking about? The translation and links are mine.

These are mostly donations to the State in the 1980s and 90s by artists like René Jacques, André Kertész, Willy Ronis, Roger Corbeau, and Denise Colomb, and also purchases made by the Ministry of Culture like the collection of the famous Harcourt studio (4 million negatives!), some 16 collections all together. Last April, dozens of crates containing these works were transferred to the Fort of Saint-Cyr, in the Yvelines. This building, which houses the photographic and documentary archives of the Médiathèque de l'architecture et du patrimoine, also contains the prestigious collection from Nadar's studio. As a result of this transfer, the Director of the Fort of Saint-Cyr is today responsible for the preservation of 16 collections of the former Photographic Collection. However, the commercial and cultural management falls to the photographic agency of the Réunion des musées nationaux (RMN), while the "valorization" of these works belongs to the present director of the Jeu de Paume, Régis Durand.
Even I can tell you that this is not a good situation. At a press conference during the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, the group of donors has made its complaints public, decrying the lack of organization in the reorganization of the collection, claiming even that some photographs have been lost (which was probably inevitable). "You have destroyed a structure without thinking about what would have to replace it. You have sacrificed the Photographic Collection to dress up the Jeu de Paume," their spokesperson said. The accustions all have merit, of course. I hope that the government is giving thought to what should be on their minds, as the author of the article points out, how to digitalize these precious collections before they disintegrate.

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