Question: ‘Question for Seller’ re-situates images in a different context and in so doing allows for a new dialogue to take place. Does their presence on a gallery wall give these images an elevated status?
The first reflex answer is yes because any image placed on a gallery wall indicates that it has passed successfully through an appraisal process, a test that most images ordinarily are likely to fail. Visitors to a gallery are always aware, even subconsciously, of the unseen vetting and procedural process that precedes the hanging of the works they have come to view. Yet the exhibition ‘Question for Seller’ (Bird, 2004 – 2006) complicates these assumptions because the criteria for entry of any photograph into the exhibition (and hence its placement on the gallery wall) is not of the usual type. This is because of the nature of the material on exhibit – found family photographs, those offered for sale on eBay and having obtained only a single bid. In some sense these images could be said to have been self-selected for their inclusion in the exhibit.
The question now is whether this self-selection means that the photographs have the same elevated status as others that successfully pass through the traditional curatorial selection process? Again the answer is yes because in the traditional selection it is the artist and the work that is tested or graded to ensure their fitness for exhibition; in the case of ‘Question for Seller’ a much broader but no less demanding set of criteria are applied to ensure fitness: the photographs are old and so must have been wanted or even treasured at some time, they all fall within the category of ‘family photographs’ but are now are unwanted (Nicky Bird being the only bidder on eBay). These attributes are what make them worthy of their placement on a gallery wall and the elevated status that ensues.
Question: Where does their meaning derive from?
Part of Nicky Bird’s method was that:
the seller was approached with the question – How did you come across the photos and what, if anything, do you know about them? Their replies, however brief, are as important as the photographs they are selling – sometimes alluding to a part of a discarded family history, or the everyday, where personal photographs have long since lost their original meaning (Bird, 2004 – 2006).
Bird acknowledges that the photographs meaning derives equally from both the images themselves and the history that is known about them and those they depict. The images are old and therefore show the past which is always open to interpretation and re-interpretation both on a personal and more broadly historical level. The meaning of the images derives from their being looked at from the perspective of a particular point in history at a particular remove from the time the images were made. Perhaps an example more extreme than family photographs makes the point. In its panoramic view of the subject Phaidon’s ‘The Photography Book’ (Jeffrey, 2014) places a single photographer and image in the Unknown category (see fig. 1.). Ian Jeffers says of this image:
For the soldier on the right the event is all in a day’s work, and photography is just part of the official record. Yet for those under supervision, the camera – with its promise of posterity – belonged to a world now in the past. Those in the front rank are looking towards a future which can hardly be imagined, of the sort expressed in the scratched darkness behind them. The theory of post-war photography in general was that the meaning of such a picture, with its horror and poignancy, would become self-evident (Jeffers, 2014)
The point of convergence here is that those sitting for family photographs must have had some sense of posterity and the future, even if only of their own family history, never dreaming that their image would someday hang on a gallery wall. In Bird’s photographs there is no obvious horror but certainly there is, for many, poignancy since:
All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt (Sontag, 1977: 15).
It is in this poignancy that the meaning of the photographs in ‘Question for Seller’ can become self-evident.
Bird, Nicky (2004 – 2006) Question for Seller At: http://nickybird.com/projects/question-for-seller/ (Accessed on: 10.05.15)
Jeffers, Ian (2014) The Photography Book. New York: Phaidon Press
Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography, London, Penguin Books
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Unknown (1944) Persecution of Warsaw Jews, Warsaw Ghetto. [Gelatin silver print] At: http://www.corbisimages.com/stock-photo/rights-managed/BE036668/persecution-of-warsaw-jews (Accessed on: 10.05.15)