A conversation between Trevor Powers and Annie Sollinger about art, photography, and image preservation and archiving.

Annie Sollinger (b. 1985) is an artist and student from Vermont. After rejection from several prestigious photography programs, she obtained a degree in Art History from New York University and is now pursuing a master’s degree in Information Studies from the University of Texas. She currently interns in a photo archive at UT.

What is your earliest memory of photography?

My dad had this cool drawer of old stuff that we called “the old stuff drawer.” I think there were “very old” family photos in there, pictures of my grandpa in uniform, my grandma as a teenager, and dozens of envelopes of drugstore prints. There were also some beautiful cameras around there somewhere. My dad must have explained something about the mechanics of photography to me then, because I knew to be careful with the negatives. My sister had a really cool Fisher Price camera back then but it wasn’t until middle school that I realized I wanted to take pictures myself.


When did you start actively thinking about the preservation of images (your own or others), and why?

It’s funny; I can’t say I ever took the idea as such seriously until I started this program. It was always an afterthought, I guess. Thinking about photography specifically, preservation on a personal level is difficult to think about when you’re not making good work or if you are just jaded; as a fairly young person, I know I am not alone when I say that it’s only recently that I really like what I’m making. I have all of this garbage that I made when I was younger or even last year that I just want to get away from, but at the same time, it’s hard to just throw it out unless you have one of those moments of Zen clarity. That Zen clarity also comes in handy when you accidentally delete thousands of digital photos.

On an academic or professional level, even now, I sometimes have to force myself to care enough to consider the implications of preservation. It’s essentially a practical consideration, and that’s not always the most fun thing; it’s also about thinking in the long-term–why preserve something if no one is going to use it in the future? The short explanation is that I think I have always considered the opposite of preservation (i.e., decay) to be something that just happens, and that preservation was someone else’s job. Like a lot of people, I came into library science and archives with an anachronistic attitude, thinking and saying, “I like old stuff,” which makes me cringe now. I didn’t consider technology to be within my aptitude. It is a little more complicated than that though. Art History as an academic framework inculcates a specific way of dealing with images; the art object becomes more or less static, and preservation is not really a concern when you are doing conceptual or historical thinking; again, you take the image for granted, although you are learning something about its creation, and are maybe looking at slides of destroyed or lost paintings, and maybe those slides are really old and bad. I started moving beyond this static thinking through museum studies and a super great seminar in iconoclasm. The destruction of images, and why people destroy images, is still far more conceptually interesting to me than preservation. I became interested in the stories behind the images or objects that have been destroyed and lost, or damaged and restored. These are stories that don’t always get told, and I imagined that these stories lived in the archives by means of their documentation. I wasn’t thinking so much about preservation, which I now realize is the primary function of the archive.

Has thinking about photography and art in general in such an academic way changed the way you make your own work?

I think it’s probably made my work more mindless. Academically, I get confused pretty easily about where my strengths lie, and how to best implement the ideas that I have, so focus and compartmentalization–between academics and art making–are important to me. As far as photography, I know I’m an ok shot, but the universe has made it clear that I’m supposed to think about photographs rather than make them (all my cameras got stolen, and 6 months later I started working in photo archives). A lot of the work that I love is engaging in really big ideas; other work is almost purely aesthetic. I think my mind is better at engaging with small ideas in a visual way, whereas with the big ideas I’m better off writing a paper.

Do you find that your art making practice parallels the processes of archiving in that meditative, monotonous sort of way?  I am specifically thinking about some of the ghost collages.

I think you could draw a parallel here, although it’s never occurred to me. Archival work can be pretty satisfying, aside from the intellectual processes, the physical aspect of labeling folders or putting negatives in sleeves, and in a sense, creating order out of relative disorder. There is a mindless, zoned-out aspect to that. My collage work is definitely meditative. I make a big mess then clean it up in this absurd way, and it’s not so much about content as process. The meditative process of both of those activities leaves you a lot of mental space to contemplate what you’re doing, or you know, what’s for lunch, although the focus and impetus for each is totally different. Sometimes it’s nice to just put your head down and make things fit together.

Thinking about this question and the last one, I can say that working with archives is like working with someone else’s art; everything is precious. Although some of my stuff probably seems pretty precious, I don’t feel that way about it. I mean, I like taking Polaroids and using disposable cameras and making collages out of garbage, basically. On the other hand, I like making things for other people so those projects are maybe a little more careful. I guess I feel like what I make is evidence of something rather than a super important product, and evidence is what archives is made of, y’all.

With the influx of social networking websites designed specifically for image sharing, we are seeing our lives lived out not only digitally, but also through the Internet.  From the point of view of someone whose job it is to think about how we can preserve history for future generations, what do you think about the profusion of low-quality, almost ephemeral images that get lost in digital space a day after they are posted?

Archives haven’t really started to properly deal with digital images; storage space is so cheap that people save everything, and traditional archival description is impractical, so they’re left alone until someone wants to access them. And the glut of images is not a new problem, but the scale is—seemingly endless storage space and infinite bandwidth.

So, the profusion of images. An important point to make here is about the way that this profusion occurs. It’s almost entirely by proprietary means: free services that host your uploaded image for the purpose of showing it to a network of other people by means of some novel interface. There is something to say here about the way these services shape the way that users make images, but that’s another ball of wax. Anyway, I think there is an expectation that those services will take care of that image file. And while corporate responsibility dictates that yes, users can have a reasonable expectation that their image is safe, databases fail, businesses fail; I don’t think it’s up to the service to preserve those images. They are not in the business of preserving image files and metadata; that’s another business, one that you generally have to pay for. So as far as preservation, I’ve seen personal digital archiving get more attention recently as a concept. I think this is key. It’s not fair to generalize about how much people understand when they use services to “share” their digital photos, but I’ve only recently figured a lot of this out for myself, so I feel like I can stress the importance of digital literacy here. Anyone with a computer knows how fast things obsolesce, yet we don’t think about how we’ll access our jpegs in 5 or 10 years. We just don’t know what kind of bit rot will happen.

Personally, I think it’s beautiful that things get lost in digital space. It sort of mirrors how memory actually works, and there is a kind of cyborg peace in that. It’s a reminder that technology systems are imperfect because they are built by imperfect people. And the profusion of personal images, it is often lamented, but it’s at least evidence of visual thinking, whatever the motivations. Even if I am pretty grossed out by a billion filtered pictures of that dude’s cat or lunch, it’s interesting and amusing to step back and look at the whole system. From an artistic standpoint, which also happens to be an extremely nerdy standpoint, I think the most interesting thing is not the aesthetic output, which in my own experience is pretty generic and socially dictated as well as just looking computer generated, but whatever patterns might emerge, and how messy these image databases must be.

What are some things you are looking at and thinking about?

Top 5 art things off the top of my head: Olia LialinaJon RafmanDina Kelberman, I also really love Ed Ruscha and Arturo Herrera.

Trevor Powers (b. 1985) is a photographer based in Boston, Massachusetts. He studied photography at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where he graduated in 2008. His work is primarily based around travel and the relationships, connections, and routines of everyday life. He is interested in exploring America, collaboration, zines, and creating community and sharing work through events and shows he organizes.  His photographs have been featured in numerous exhibitions and publications throughout the United States, in print and online.  Most recently, he self-published the book, TOO MANY PLACES AND TIMES TO REMEMBER, with Ginevra Shay that documents their 5 years of traveling and collaborating together.