If photography is a function of the flow of time, then its substantive meaning will change depending upon whether it belongs to the domain of the present or to some phase of the past.
— Siegfried Kracauer (1927)
A couple of years ago during our annual family christmas party my grandfather told me about a mysterious package that he had received 40 years ago. He thought that it could contain photographs and I might be interested in the contents of that package since I work in the archive. After carefully opening it in the archive, a time capsule was revealed. It consisted of 52 photographic plates, 10 × 15cm each, which were taken in the time period between 1930-1950 in Estonia by the brother of my great-grandmother who was a photography enthusiast.
After digitising the negatives it turned out that some of those images were taken when my great-grandparents were in their twenties and thirties. The images featured family gatherings, parties and other social events. My grandfather could only recognize people in about a quarter of the images but the people in other photos couldn’t be identified because my great-grandparents had passed away by then. The underlying theme in these scenes exposed on glass plates is death. There are images of now dead people, lost places, funerals and visits to the graveyard which are exposed on this mostly defunct photographic process. Even though this medium is almost extinct, the quality and resolution it exposes is almost unparalleled compared to contemporary means of taking an image. Enamored by this medium, I started to analyse these images further while trying to be self-aware of my own subjectivity. I became obsessed with one of the plates which was an exposure of two people, a man and a woman, sitting in a graveyard next to a grave decorated with flowers and a white cross. The image made me think of the evolution of photography and its subjects through the last 150 years. Exposing an image when this photo was taken, wasn't a quick snap that it is today in digital photography and in addition to the exposure, the materiality of the medium becomes present through the glass and the emulsion. I am not usually obsessed with analog photography and I believe that digital images have their own ‘aura’ that will become an object of nostalgia someday but this specific glass plate made me think of the second exposure that revealed the passage of time. The plate has documented the photographer’s touch and now it has become evidence of his absence. The surface of the emulsion exposes the fact that the plate was in close physical proximity of that graveyard and the people in it. It is filled with different damages that might have been inflicted during the development process or in its afterlife in the turbulent times in Estonia that featured regime changes and deportations. These abstract looking damages have their own stories to tell. That is why I wanted to get closer and zoom into the plate so that the damages would stand out and reveal this second exposure.
To me, this object became a stimuli to contemplate on photography and its age-old relation to death and absence. Digital photography is no exception to that but this fragile tomb made of glass is like a grave of an unknown person. The plates that featured some of my relatives have a physical connection to the history of my family but the anonymous subjects exposed on that graveyard photo have become the characters in the story of the glass plate and the history of photography.
* Siegfried Kracauer, Thomas Y. Levin, The University of Chicago Press, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Spring, 1993), pp. 421-436.