Archive, Photography and the Language of Administration

Archive, Photography and the Language of Administration
Jane Birkin

Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, NL, 2021
218 pp. illus. Trade, € 99,00
ISBN: 9789463729642.

Reviewed by: 
Ana Peraica
September 2021

Jane Birkin's recently published Archive, Photography and the Language of Administration (University of Amsterdam 2021) approaches one of the most critical themes in digital humanities: archives. Organized in a serial of separate but connected essays, rather than formal chapters, it covers themes from the history of image archives, the social component of archives, cataloguing and descriptions, technical data, performativity, and finally, opening up the theme of post-digital archives. Many types of archives are covered by this book, from methodical ones by natural sciences, over controlling secret service archives, to random digital snapshot archives. The book covers the history of photography and its memory, ranging its interests for items from glass plates, over paper items, to poor images as thumbnails. It refers to its original artworks and reproductions.

Archive, Photography and the Language of Administration is standing on Foucault’s discourse classificatory urge of power and disciplinarity in archives, further elaborated in Alan Sekula's insight into history of control photography. Yet, it does not discriminate the poetic element of Jacques Derrida's approach to archive. So, Birkin writes that tagging "can generate warm feelings of individuality, visibility and recognition" (p. 87).

The book's specific focus is on the distinction but also relationship between image and text, which Ronald Barthes introduced in the image theory, showing how text nails down polyvalent meaning and ambiguity of the image by its precision. Moving between the formality of Foucault's disciplinary discourse to the narrativity of Derrida, but also rigid dualism of Barthes, Birkin sees more practical purpose in using text in both conceptual and descriptive writing, in a variety of forms, as label, tag, ekphrasis, iconographic reading, narrative…. Thus, the text has a triple function; it is used to "reveal, classify and to reproduce" (p. 42) the image as a document.

Archive, Photography and the Language of Administration is a substantial read. Bringing up information, theories, and references in significant density, it supplements and updates previous knowledge on both archives and its theories, hardly omitting any important detail in capturing the entire theme landscape. As such, it would be a valuable source for archivists of all kinds, but even more – it would be a great handbook for studies in the domain.