Photographing the Invisible
In order to play with the “sacred” images of Argentina’s traumatic history, to combine the documentary and the fictional and to invent new realities, Quieto treats photographs as material objects and artifices, as montages and representations, rather than as transparent windows to an immutable and fixed past. With this premise in mind, and as Ana Amado has argued, instead of using the digital manipulation of images to produce a complete simulacrum, she self-consciously makes visible the handmade composition of the scenes in Arqueologla de la ausencia, the materiality of the old pictures (irregular borders, breakages and folds) and the frames, stressing the artificiality of the generational encounters, and suggesting that something has been broken and the efforts to fix it are, ultimately, in vain. Similarly, the common denominator of her collages is the juxtaposition of various different materials and images making visible, rather than hiding, the illusory nature of her invented scenarios.
Art historian Geoffrey Batchen has written that “in order to see what the photograph is of we must first suppress our consciousness of what the photograph ‘is’ in material terms.”36 In other words, we treat photographs not as if they were objects, material things, but rather as if they embodied the past made present in an image. However, if Quieto’s images in Arqueologla de la ausencia are effective at portraying absence, it is precisely because they do not hide but rather make visible the material condition of photographs: the way they decay over time and with usage, their chemical deterioration, and their places in family albums.37 In both this series and her collages, Quieto also shows the social biographies of photographs, their lives, the scars of their use, the marks of constant handling, their condition as commodities and as “visual currency.”38
Quieto’s photographs echo two popular and traditional ways of memorializing the dead through photography in nineteenth-century North America and Europe. On the one hand, Arqueologla de la ausencia reminds us of a tradition born not long after the invention of photography— namely, spirit photography39—used to communicate with the afterlife and the departed. Spirit photography was born in New York in 1848 and was considered by many not a field of faith and imagination but a proper science, as illustrated by books such as Chronicles of Spirit Photography (1882) by Miss Houghton and Photographing the Invisible: Practical
Studies in Spirit Photography and other Rare but Allied Phenomena (1911) by James Coates. In such books we not only find detailed descriptions of case studies and photographs of spirits but also rational arguments about why it would be more logical to believe in the possibility of photographing ghosts than the other way round:
to say that the invisible cannot be photographed, even on the material plane, would be to confess ignorance of facts which are common place—as, for instance, to mention the application of X-ray photography to the exploration of muscles, of fracture bone, and the internal organs. In the foregoing, and analogue cases, the photographing is that of material, though invisible, objects.40
Both spirit photographs and Quieto’s images demonstrate that the invisible can indeed be photographed, and that photography can be used not only to bring back the past but also to communicate with those who live in an eternal present.
Simone Natale, author of Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture (2016), has explained that the whole purpose of this activity was to “detect the image of spirits that were among us, but went undetected by the human senses. Like trance mediums, the visual medium of photography was able to access the spirit world, offering to spiritualist believers the possibility to receive a portrait of their beloved from the other world.”41 Multiple exposure and similar superimposition techniques were commonly used in this photographic practice at the time and served to visually reunite the alive with the departed.
On the other hand, as argued by David Rojinsky, Quieto’s collages also remind us of the way people used to adorn the photographs of their dead with dry flowers, locks of hair and other objects to reinforce their memorial status.42 In his reading of Quieto’s images, Rojinsky mentions the work of Batchen, who has analyzed nineteenth-century vernacular photographs of this sort from Europe and North America for his book-catalogue Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance (2004). In Batchen’s view, “to induce the full, sensorial experience of involuntary memory, a photograph must be transformed. Something must be done to the photograph to pull it (and us) out of the past and into the present.”43 He demonstrates that the way pictures were framed or kept (e.g. in pocket mirrors or little boxes) personalized the image. He observed that many photographs were painted, reframed or adorned with flowers or hair belonging to the departed, suggesting that the indexicality of the naked image did insufficient justice to the required memory. He argued that “photography is usually about making things visible, but these elaborated photographs are equally dedicated to the evocation of the invisible—relationships, emotions, memories.”44 Similarly, by reframing the photographs of the disappeared in Arqueologla de la ausencia or modifying the materiality of the pictures in her collages, Lucila Quieto is precisely reinforcing the status of these photographs as memorabilia.
One of her collages synthesizes the relationship between memory, materiality and photography in her work (Fig. 6.6). It is a 2003 piece
Fig. 6.6 Lucila Quieto, Untitled, collage, 2013
made with a black-and-white photograph of her father when he was a child, taken from his passport, and dry flowers and leaves placed on his face. In reference to the use of dry flowers in the photographs of his corpus, Batchen has written that memory is always in a state of ruins.45 Remembering something is ruining it, displacing it from its place of origin, just as Quieto does in her work. Dry flowers stress that ruined nature of memory and also the links between life and death, as illustrated by the use of flowers in funerals. The use of such flowers in this collage remind us both of the “alive dead” that inhabit Quieto’s family album and the way she creatively adorns and plays with the images of the past.
In addition, the choice of a photograph of her father when he was a child for this collage (as opposed to the passport pictures of the adult disappeared exhibited in marches and commemorations) evokes times of play but also times of discipline and state control, not least because this is also an ID picture, numbered on one side. The boy looks at something outside the frame of the picture; he wears a suit and does not smile. The collage is thus a perfect summary of all the topics recurrent in Quieto’s work— namely, childhood and violence, the materiality of memory, absence, power and play.