The Shadow Archive at The Walther Collection Project Space

Art Scene

The Shadow Archive at The Walther Collection Project Space

An intriguing array of human subjects arranged into categories and presented primarily in grid formations highlights the ways in which society is organized and constructed, in the exhibition The Shadow Archive. On view at The Walther Collection Project Space, the exhibition includes both historical and contemporary examples of archives of portraits, identity cards and other elements that function as a form of visual data and social identification.

Installation view, Photo by Anders Jones

From family albums, high school yearbook photos, and criminal mugshots to series’ titled “Workers Displaying Tools of Their Trade, ca. 1865-1890” or “Employee Identification Badges for G. & G. Precision Works, ca. 1940-45” both shot by unidentified photographers, the works on view are a feast for the imagination. What are the backstories of these individuals? What does a collection of images say about employment opportunities, class, poverty, race or gender? What crime did these felons commit? Viewers might even wonder if they are seeing a resemblance to an unknown distant relative in one of the images.

Installation view, Photo by Ander Jones

Some of the collections have an overall theatricality to the characters that they present. Workers posed with tools and in costumes specific to their trade are, in a sense, knowingly performing for the camera, whereas an archive of images, “Criminal Photographs, No. 19, ca. 1885” attributed to American photographer Thomas Cunningham, offers an amazing presentation of the duplicitous impersonation techniques of what appears to be a crafty and creative group of individuals.

Martina Bacigalupo, Gulu Real Art Studio, 2011–12

Courtesy the artist and The Walther Collection

The exhibition also features more conceptual work, such as photojournalist Martina Bacigalupo’s “Gulu Real Art Studio, 2011-12”. The series organizes discarded identity photographs taken by Obal Denis in Gulu, Uganda. The identity portraits, a staple of political life in Uganda, all shot against a red backdrop by Denis, were the first step in a two-part process to create small headshots cut from the original photograph that could then be used in identity cards. Bacigalupo’s collection of the original photographs with small squares cut out of the top third of the images offers a faceless index of Ugandan citizens differentiated through pose, clothing and gesture at a particular moment in time.

Unidentified Photographer, Migrant Laborers, ca. 1990–2000

Courtesy The Walther Collection

Another archive of images features migrant farmworkers. Shot by an unidentified photographer circa 1980, the subjects sit on a stool facing the camera, with most holding up some sort of paper card with presumably more identifying information. Against a makeshift white backdrop formed from a loosely hung white sheet, the workers’ faces reveal an assortment of emotional states ranging from amusement or apathy to disgust. Most of the workers wear baseball caps suggesting outdoor work in the sun, although the images appear to be quick snapshots with a flash in factory-like succession.

Despite the demographic differentiation found in the exhibition, viewers may leave with a greater sense of our shared characteristics as human beings and the role that constructed identities play in social organization.

The Shadow Archive is on view at The Walther Collection Project Space through March 31, 2018.