The Archive of Modern Conflict
Essay by Duncan Wooldridge
Accident, as artist Moyra Davey has observed, is the lifeblood of photography. When a photograph speaks to us, it does so through the spark of accident that ignites the image and holds us interested. But accident’s cousin, excess – that surplus of information, and fullness of detail that seeps into the image – is just as important. As technology progresses, as colour, detail and speed transform our experience of photography, the more excess it seems to allow. Lee Friedlander reflected upon that which went beyond his initial gaze and intent as an image-maker: “I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.”
Cameroon’s earliest colour photo studio, Photo Jeunesse, served several functions when it opened in the capital Yaoundé in the 1970s. Like many studios, it brought affordable photographic images to a local audience, offering formalised, staged and painterly portraits, identity photographs tightly cropped from a larger image, and stamped out from the photograph, and leisurely masquerading depictions in the studio. Although colour photography emerged in Cameroon in the 1970s, black and white remained familiar through to the 1990s, and studios often juggled between the two analogue modes. Many, Jacques Touselle, resisted digitisation as if to hold on to an opportunity to retain a sense of that which comes about through the chance and accident. The Photo Jeunesse archive, which is now part of The Archive of Modern Conflict’s collection, represents a record not only of Cameroonian society, tracing tradition and globalisation. But in its loose ends – the details of its painted sets, and the playful activities of its sometimes quirky sitters – it tells an alternative story of the photo studio, and its ability to represent not only the formal and dignified version of the sitter, but the very excess that surrounds them, which paradoxically leads us to something that feels like what Jacques Lacan would call the real.
When a photo studio is archived and its story told, its narrative is often cautious and selectively preserved – from a vast quantity of imagery it is a restrained formality which usually sees the light of day, as if historians and archivists sought to ensure a desaturated dignity for their subjects. The studio of Photo Jeunesse is different. From the beginning, its variety resists sociological or anthropological categorisation. Hipsters in suits and sunglasses mingle with brothers and sisters in choreographed clothing. Boxers spar dramatically, while sitters hide behind foliage or interact with the studio backdrops. There is a feeling that the wealthy or well-to-do mix with some of the more eccentric characters of Yaoundé. The fashionable meets the kitsch meets the everyday. Furthermore, there is no edit by the studio of its mistakes or aberrations either. Figures exit scenes at the moment of exposure and groups are caught off-guard. There are no fixed rules or dogmatic go-to devices. There is well-behaved portraiture, of course – and it functions as a useful social record – but Photo Jeunesse provides something more at the same time: sociability and escape, not simply in costume or cinematic fantasy, but in an informality that the studio seems to look for, to seek out.
The photographs do not isolate and extract so much as make possible any number of different takes, alternative versions. They welcome the studio into the image as its own protagonist, rooting the subjects of the photographs in that place, rather than elevating them to transcend a world around them. Each image seems to ask for more people, more space, more information.
Of the African portraiture that has emerged so far into a western-centric historical narrative of photography, from Malick Sidibe to Seydou Keita, a tighter, formal, dignified, even somewhat classical edit is usual, and a well-behaved edit of Photo Jeunesse would of course be possible. But the studio presents a different, positively excessive photography. Shot with the widest of framings (each exposure would be made with a wide angle, cropped if the subject required), the images capture the full happenings of the studio and its operations. Because colour is added, this effect is heightened ever further. What we see is not some idealised representation of the clientele, but details, spaces and gestures, which makes each individual human, possible, plausible.
It is as if that which would be incidental in black and white is suddenly visible in colour. The synthetic meets the concrete. What we see is both artificial and actual, something that can only be considered an excess, producing a rupturing sense of the real beyond the staging of the portrait. It reveals the individuality of each sitter against the standardisation of the studio and photography itself.
Crimson curtains and the green of apple tres, pale painted backdrops, carpet and floor tilings; household plants in colourful pots and ironmongery. We can only guess at which props belong to the studio, and which are brought in by the sitter, just as we might attempt to read each object for its symbolic value. But we cannot ignore their colour, their sense of both the actual and imaginary. While their details may be significant, something else is at stake in these images. For in colour, they provide that flash of generosity which photography usually resists. It is excess, and accident, which give us a way in to the clients of the Photo Jeunesse. ♦
All images courtesy of AMC. © Photo Jeunesse/The Archive of Modern Conflict
Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also course director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.