Writing on photography

Ken. To be destroyed by Sara Davidmann

If the archive is defined as sort of mnemonic technology for gathering fractions of a complex and disintegrating present so that it might later be retold, it is not hard to see why it holds such allure for photographers. Photography in a sense is a very similar practice, and photography as a medium has tended to carry similar expectional burdens to those of the archive. Expectations about objectivity and neutrality which are often misplaced and found wanting in the final account. Perhaps because of this closeness photography practice has undergone an archival turn in recent years, as a growing number of photographers and artists have turned to disparate archives for influences, ideas and material. To cite just a handful of examples you could consider Simon Menner’s interventions with the archive of the East German Stasi, the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition which included a rambling display drawn from the esoteric Archive of Modern Conflict, or more recently The Burden of Proof exhibition which makes extensive use of imagery from criminal and other institutional archives. The archival turn is an interesting one, particularly for someone with one foot still planted in academic history, but what I find is often missing when photographers make these turns are important questions about exactly what archives are, the politics of their making and survival.

The contents of Sara Davidmann’s book Ken. To be destroyed belongs to a particular genre of archive known to practically all of us, the family photo album. In many ways it reveals the sometimes misleading and constructed nature of these collections in a way which is not dissimilar to the supposed neutrality of bigger state or institutional archives, where some things are hidden, left out, or forgotten. The book tells the story of Davidmann’s uncle and aunt, Ken and Hazel Houston and the family’s discovery soon after their marriage in 1954 that in private Ken was transgender, something which in the context of the time was little understood either medically or culturally. To put things in perspective regarding British attitudes towards sexuality, 1954 was the same year that Alan Turing committed suicide after being convicted of ‘gross indecency’. Despite the discovery Ken and Hazel remained together pursuing joint interests including ballroom dancing, and Ken’s transgender identity remained a family secret up until and beyond his death in 1974. Despite Davidmann having worked for some time with transgender people in her own practice she only made the discovery in 2011 while clearing out her mother’s house. There she discovered several packages labelled with the four enigmatic words which are the title of the book, parcels which contained letters and photographs sent throughout the fifties and sixties between Hazel and her sister, Davidmann’s mother. This cache has allowed Davidmann to reconstruct the narrative of this family secret.

This reconstruction is achieved primarily through the letters, which recount events from Ken and Hazel’s first meeting through to Ken’s correspondence with doctors in an attempt to research and understand his condition. These letters are shot through with a very strong sense of a particular era in British social history, from the couple first meeting by writing letters to each through the British Friendship Society, a sort of analogue penpal service, to Ken’s tentative first contact with the Beaumont Society, an early advocacy and support group for transgender people. Alongside the letters are also reproduced a series of photographs of the couple, including a number taken by Ken of Hazel, which resonate strangely between affection and a tension produced by the sense of a photographer looking intenesely at another person who was what they themselves could never be. The photographs are initially reproduced unaltered and at approximate scale, but as the book goes on Davidmann intervenes with them in various way, for example tracking in close to the image, forensically scanning it for marks and traces, and in the proccess very much calling to mind Jacques Derrida’s obsession with the ‘substrate’ of archives, only in this case the concern is with literal substrate of the photographic print. In other cases Davidmann intervenes more dramatically, rephotographing or reprinting the images, overlaying them with objects, printing them as chemigrams and collaging them together. In one series Ken’s head is collaged onto Hazel’s body, an attempt Davidmann says, to imagine how Ken might have looked had he been able to openly liven as a women.

Ken. To be destroyed is an attempt to bring a particular story or record into the light, but there is a sense that it is also an attempt to resolve or settle bad history, to offer some sort of retrospective retribution however delayed. This will be an inclination familiar to anyone who has worked with archives which tell stories which ring with a sense of injustice or personal loss, and where the temptation is always there to try and heal the wrongs of the past, if only by the act of allowing them to be witnessed and remembered by the present. For the French historian Jules Michelet the task of the historian labouring in the archive was imbued with an almost ressurectional power. In the preface to his 1844 History of France he wrote of conjuring the forgotten of history from their slumber amongst the dusty documents of the Archive Nationales. ‘Softly my dear friends, let us proceed in order’ he wrote, ‘as I breathed in their dust, I saw them rise up. They raised from the sepulchre, one the hand, the other the head, as in the last judgement … or as in the dance of death’. The archival proccess as a sort of death dance is perhaps most apt, since the historian or the photographer must always know that any hope of restoring the dead to life is pure performance and illusion. For Derrida this was in the essence of the archive, as a place very much the product of the Freudian drive towards death, whatever the aspirations of the archivist or historian, the archive could only ever remain a form of tomb.

(Critical transparency: Review copy provided by publisher. Sara Davidmann is research fellow at London College of Communication, where I also teach. However we do not know each other).

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography