I’m a huge fan of historical photographs, from the box of “Instant Ancestors” my mom and I came across in a second hand bookstore in London, Ontario, to the 1950s baby photo buried in the middle of an interlibrary loan I once picked up at the library, to the photos that grace the walls of local historical societies and tell stories of communities and families and histories and practices, and finally, to those in my collections: the online family tree curated by a cousin, the photos that fill my albums, and those on our wall of ancestors – a collection of sepia prints featuring serious and carefully-arranged family members standing dutifully for the camera.
There are stories in photos. Stories that written records can’t always tell. Stories that come from the body. From the way that a camera captures an arrangement. From dress. From the backgrounds.
Meanings in historical photographs aren’t fixed. They change every time you look at them; they shift with every new bit of information you might come across. Move the photos around and new stories burble to the surface.
And I suppose that’s what artist Julie Cockburn is doing with her photos. She’s using them to tell stories, excavating the narratives that emerge when the historical image encounters the present period. But I can’t say that I’m fully convinced. It’s almost as if, in her tellings, she’s fixed the narratives. They’re glued – or rather, stitched – in place. And while I can absolutely accept that works of art are open to interpretation, I’m more concerned with the photograph that inspired the art. In these new interpretations, it’s almost as if the photograph itself – as a fluid, mobile text – has ceased to exist. Instead, it’s become something else entirely.
There’s cleverness here. Definitely. But I also find them troubling. And I’m not entirely sure why.