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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 52.4: Katherine Groo
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Of Other Archives: Afterthoughts on "The Maison and Its Minor”

Katherine Groo, University of Aberdeen

Some six years separate my first encounter with the Lumière archive from the publication of my essay, "The Maison and Its Minor” in Cinema Journal. During several summer weeks in 2007, I viewed all of the extant Lumière films—more than 2,000 individual titles and thirty hours of single-shot cinema—in a small, dark room at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF). The screening cabins were separated from the rest of the library by thick metal doors, an architectural feature that reminded me, by turns, of a bank vault (when I was feeling privileged) and a prison (when I was feeling trapped). The early drafts of the essay were symptomatic of a certain archive fever, of my daily routine and institutional proximity. I mimicked the Lumière archive, preserved its unwieldy shape and imprecision in my own writing. With the intervention of time, some critical distance, and several excellent readers, my understanding of the archive shifted, and I began to trace the ethnographic impulses that divide the Maison Lumière and destabilize its domestic fantasies.

I have continued to explore the intersections between ethnography, early cinema, and film history in the process of developing and drafting a book, tentatively entitled Bad Film Histories: Ethnography and the Early Archive. In this project, I am interested in understanding the historiographic demands that early ethnographic cinema makes, but I also take this particular form of visual practice as a useful case study and a critical tool for rethinking early film history itself, a field that eerily echoes nineteenth-century discourses of salvage and preservation while simultaneously overlooking the archival frenzy born out of these discourses. Ethnographic cinema overflows disciplinary taxonomies, crosses and combines genres, and constructs a potentially limitless catalogue of films that wander and waste time. Put simply, these films resist our efforts to write and recover film history and, in so doing, challenge the concept of the archive and the recuperative historiographies that have shaped early film history for more than three decades.

In Bad Film Histories, I return to the Maison Lumière. This time, however, I read the archive in conjunction with another global image-making operation. As the Lumière brothers were unveiling their cinématographe, the eccentric banker and world traveler Albert Kahn began developing an elaborate set of projects in Paris. Among them was an archive of color autochromes and 35-millimeter films gathered by a group of cameramen on image-making excursions throughout France and around the world. This photo-film project would come to be known as the Archives de la Planète. It began in 1908 with an amateur adventure and continued in 1909 under the direction of Jean Brunhes, Chair of Human Geography at the Collège de France. When operations shuttered in 1931, the collection contained more than 72,000 autochrome photographs and 183,000 meters of unedited black-and-white film. These materials were rarely seen by anyone outside the elite network of artists, writers, and politicians that frequented the Kahn estate. Louis Lumière was among those privileged visitors. He also invented the autochrome process of full-color glass plate photography.










Louis Lumière’s portrait, taken during his visit to Albert Kahn’s estate in Bologne-Billancourt, Paris (Georges Chevalier, 1930)

Both the Maison Lumière and the Archives de la Planète share in the colonial impulse to capture and catalog the world. They also appeal to a utopian understanding of mechanical reproduction: the camera opens onto the world as it is, rather than the world as it has been transfigured by technology. In these archives, one can detect the modern impulse to accumulate and enclose time, to construct what Michel Foucault describes as that stable "place of all times” that exists outside of time, the uncomplicated and seamless mirror image that reiterates and reassures.[i] They instead produce a place torn apart by the paths of global travel and the visual differences of ethnographic representation.

The Archives de la Planète supplements the geographic divisions that guide my reading of the Maison Lumière with a set of technological ones. Roughly half of the archive’s photographs and films belong to what one might call an "internal” or "domestic” collection. This segment of the archive includes images of Paris, the Kahn estate and gardens, and rural France. The rest of the images belong to an "external” or "expedition” collection, gathered by Kahn operators on their journeys abroad. The domestic collection reiterates and reassures. One finds stillness in its photographs and mobility in its films. The expedition collection disrupts this tidy visual structure. Here, photographs are made to move and films are brought to a standstill. The two technologies collide with one another, repeat each other, and challenge the collaborative totality that they were meant to serve. In the expedition to elsewhere, these distinct media lose their utility and become uncertain, experimental forms. The expedition images produce a set of complex visual and epistemic remainders, which collectively oppose the positivist aims of making-visible and the preservative ends of the archive.

In recent decades, several scholars have tried to find a point of entry into the Archives de la Planète. For example, Paula Amad puts pressure on the specificity of cinema and its capacity to overwhelm archival order with "the raw data of routine experience, transient details, uneventful moments, ordinary gestures, and casual occurrences.”[ii] That is, Amad reconceptualizes the archive qua film archive. The counter-forces of the Archives de la Planète, she argues, emanate from its moving images, from all moving images. The Kahn archive is just one example of a larger film phenomenon and cinema is the origin of a new, counter-archival order. In my own reading, neither film nor photography forces a new conception of the archive. They are not causes or catalysts, in part, because they do not consistently function as clear ontological categories. They are fluid forms of visual representation, and these ontological insecurities are symptoms of an archival rupture that originates in the search for signs of difference.

This research also returns me to the concept of the minor. Like the Lumière archive, the Archives de la Planète operates by subtraction. However, its subtractions include major elements of the Maison Lumière. It removes the burdens of commercial distribution and public spectatorship, along with the limitations of single-shot cinema. Put another way, the Lumière and Kahn archives stand in a major-minor relationship to each other. They belong to different orders of film practice and are consigned to different positions in the hierarchies of film history: the one is canonical, the other is marginal, a virtually unseen photo-film hybrid. In bringing these two archives together, I trouble the center of early film practice and consider what the minor archive illuminates of its major counterpart. The Archives de la Planète repeats the global archive with a difference, not only shattering the cinématographic view into a multimedia tangle, but also, and more importantly, extending the ethnographic desire to see until it reaches the limits of visibility. Indeed, it counters the subtle violence of the Lumière archive—the grabbed face and forced meal in Repas d’Indiens (Gabriel Veyre, Mexico, 1896), for example—with explicit indexes of physical and sexual violence. These images puncture the surface of the archive and escape the search for visibility and visual knowledge. But these images, I argue, equally belong to the Maison Lumière. They are the most errant of copies among so many simulacrum.

Le Supplice d’une femme condamnée à mort pour adultère
(The Torture of a Woman Condemned to Death for Adultery) (Stéphane Passet, Mongolia, 1913)


[i] Michel Foucault, "Of Other Spaces,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics 16, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 26.

[ii] Paula Amad, Counter-Archive: Film, the Everyday, and the Archives de la Planète (New York; Columbia University Press, 2010): 5.

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