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Doug Manchee spent three years photographing in the Research Center at Visual Studies Workshop (VSW) in Rochester, NY. This hybrid library/archive holds roughly 800,000 photographic print, negative, and slide images; 500 original open reel and cassette audiotapes of imagemaker and historian lectures; 25,000 volumes related to the media arts; 5,000 artists’ books; and thousands of periodicals. A good portion of what is collected in the Research Center, specifically many of the photographic images, was saved in the face of destruction. Manchee didn’t set out to document objects in the collection or record the state of the place in time. His approach is more equivocal and evocative, and his photographs of the archive are operative in a way that summons the search, but forgoes the retrieval, of memory. With this project Manchee conceptualizes storage and what is archival about the mind. He has done this by realizing what Barbara Maria Stafford calls in Echo Objects one of the key concerns of our time, that is the visualization of blur and vagueness. In his interiors, Manchee creates picture planes with large blurry areas and a pivot point at the edge of the image focusing on the corner hinge of an archival storage box or the frame of a bookshelf. His picture method encapsulates what it is to physically be in the space, closely approximate to one thing, while in possession of the knowledge that there are hundreds of items beyond you. With this awareness we are both in the place and also within a fuzzy mental space where everything is obtainable, but nothing is immediate. This everything/nothing sense is affirmed by our eye activity as we turn from the area in focus to the blurry vastness and back again, our eyes pivoting on a point of structure—the hinge, or shelf—that link and hold different parts of things together. In this way, Manchee engages a search for what is inevitably there, though non-specific. We arrive at a conception of memory: that it is everything and nothing at once.

This conceptualization continues through Manchee’s straightforward portrayal of storage devices. His photographs of boxes, bags, tapes, and diskettes confront us with vagueness. An unmarked audiotape could be blank or every magnetic second might have information. Boxes that rest on shelves in opened metal cabinets could contain dozens of prints or be empty altogether. In Manchee’s photographs the archive is not something that can be seen. The archive is an abstraction as much as a collection of photographs, documents, and ephemera. It is held in objects like manila archive boxes photographed to appear as solid objects, their flat surfaces reflecting light to emphasize their opacity. The archive comes out as a subject because it is hidden and immersed in objects.

Manchee shows us the archive is still veiled even when a box is opened. In one picture the topography of an open box is plastic-bagged opaque white papers revealing nothing. Light reflecting off the clear plastic’s crinkled corner is a playful comment on how the archive is protected by its lack of transparency. The blank whiteness of the paper offers us a sign: the archive is vague because it is unwritten. It may not always be clear why we store something but throwing it away may also be an act of hubris. Manchee’s project examines the virtue of being kept. It is important here to revisit the fact that many of the items in VSW’s Research Center were kept from destruction. Through his photographs Manchee recognizes the unclarity of the archive, its contingency, and the suggestive power of its dormancy in storage.

Memory is the retrievable storage of experience or knowledge (or data in the contemporary sense), and Manchee’s photographs show us clusters of information. Manchee’s work expresses the physical-ness of clustering (for example, an image shows wads of paper prints that have curled and attached to one another); it shows the gravitation of one element to another as in the grouping of like things; and it reveals the significance of clusters to our thinking. Moreover, the project as a whole is organized in clusters of related images. All of this communicates an idea about the role of categorization in the mind. We don’t just see an object or a photograph, we see a kind of object, or a type of photograph, and this categorization is important to our common thinking, not just the classification of collected things. Manchee clearly identifies this idea in how he photographs VSW’s vernacular print collections in particular. In these images his full frame focuses on handwritten subject classifications like “Unemployed” and “War Wounds,” examples of the complexity and flexible boundaries of categories. The edges of a few of the collected vernacular images are clearly legible poking out of file folders, faces peep out from bundles, or make eye contact from the top of a heap of prints. The role of these witnesses is less vague. They remind us that the archive is defined by the presence of people like Manchee, his point of view, and how he categorizes experience.

Tate Shaw
Rochester, NY,
2010