photographic memory

The other Sunday, a group of former founders, residents, and visitors from the original New Buffalo commune joined us for dinner and a walkaround to see the current and future excavation sites, discuss the project, and share their memories of the time they spent here.

Hearing their stories was exciting and encouraging–not only did they share a lot of useful information that will help us contextualize and interpret the archaeological evidence, but they also gave us a more vivid, immediate sense of the living past of these places we’re working to understand.  In some instances, our findings have contradicted what we were told (for example, the pit house turns out to have had plaster on the walls, but no abode–the opposite of what we’d thought based on the recollections of people who had seen the pit house when it was in use, although not lived in it themselves).

One of the guests was Lisa Law, a photographer who spent some time at New Buffalo in the 1960s, and shot the best-known photos of the commune in its heyday (you can see some of her work documenting sixties counterculture here, including photos of New Buffalo).  When we arrived at New Buffalo, one of the first things we did was look at a number of those photographs, which now line the walls of the library and the Buffalo Room.  They were striking images–but indoors, confined to their frames, possessed the aura of historical distance that black-and-white photographs often convey.  A few had some obvious resemblance to what we saw around us: the long, low adobe buildings that made up the original structures here, or tipis on a hillside lit by a slanting evening light under a sky of dark clouds–but they were otherwise foreign, filled with people and scenes from the past.  But when we walked out that evening, Kaet brought an armful of those images, and we walked around with Lisa and the other visitors putting them into context.

For me, this palimpsest play with photographs was one of the most striking aspects of the encounter–we walked around holding up the pictures, matching them to the skylines and trees around us, and suddenly they were palpably located in the landscape, integrated into our sensory experience of this place.  Later that night, I found myself thinking of the posts that documentary filmmaker Errol Morris wrote for a New York Times blog about his attempt to discover the sequence in which two famous photographs of a Crimean War battlefield (one “real”, one “staged”) were taken–a journey that took him all the way to that valley in the Crimea, and involved intense scrutiny of maps, archival documents, topography, and the qualities of light and shadow at certain times of the day.  As a photographer, I’m fascinated by these dual (duelling?) aspects of the photographic image: on the one hand, its documentary or evidentiary role, as testament or archive, and on the other, its malleable, creative, even deceptive qualities.  Playing with those boundaries (both in our self-conscious, almost mocking adherence to a”scientific” aesthetic in some contexts, and in our more experimental attempts to document people and artifacts in other ways) has been one of the most rewarding parts of the project for me so far.


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