The Past's Digital Presence, February 19-20, 2010


21 - Theorizing the Digital Archive: "Eugène Atget and the Digital Archive"

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Art-historical self-critique through an analysis of the commercial practice of photographer Eugène Atget remains one of the great tasks undertaken in this discipline in the past 20 years. The most prominent example is Molly Nesbit’s Atget’s Seven Albums, published in 1992, which significantly altered the way art historians understand the archive’s place in historical research. This presentation investigates the institutional discourse of Atget’s work and argues that the Museum of Modern Art’s digital catalog extends the institutions careful editing of Atget’s work required to support the narrative of modern photography, which is often incompatible with the multiple discursive spaces that his images occupy. In comparison to its vast collection of his work, totaling around 3000 images, the 58 pictures visible online to the public are easily codified in aesthetic categories that were not the primary concern for Atget when he produced his them. As we digitize the exhibition space of photography, we must reconsider not only whether, and if so, in what ways, this space replicates the discursive possibilities of the physical archive, but also what methodologies we must produce for investigating and critiquing the role of power in digitally regulating the discourses of photographic history.

Open Access

This Article is Open Access