For those of us interested in vernacular and orphaned photography, flea markets and second-hand shops are a goldmine. Amongst all the rubbish and knick-knacks that have passed through countless other hands, photographs reveal themselves as magical, magnetic entities, often sold at a low price point by vendors who have no attachment to the discarded scraps of memories—relics to some and shards of potential to others.
One day in July 2016, as artist Pablo Lerma and his husband coursed through the lanes of the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market in New York—a regular Sunday morning ritual for the couple—something caught his partner’s eye: a vendor selling a dark, wooden box full of small envelopes. Each paper vessel, inscribed with a file number and general notes, contained groupings of negatives, mostly in black and white, and a few in color.
The vendor approached the inquisitive Lerma, and explained how he acquired the box at an auction in Greenfield, Massachusetts, where the negatives were discarded by a photo store that went out of business. During his retelling, the vendor referred to the small images in Lerma’s hands as “the forgotten negatives.” Lerma reflects, “As soon as he said that, something resonated within me. I guess you could call that moment the starting point of the project—when he said it, I pictured it written with capital letters.” Acknowledging his curiosity, Lerma’s husband suggested purchasing the entire box for him as a birthday gift. After ten minutes of negotiating with the vendor, who initially propositioned the steep price of $500, the couple convinced him to whittle down the sale to a fraction of the price: $100.
Having worked as a photographer across multiple roles for over 10 years, Lerma wears a multitude of hats, from practitioner to researcher to educator and everything in between. The photographs of his own making are stark and striking, harnessing the otherworldly capacities of natural light, ethereal landscapes and humankind’s relationship to external spaces, not in a traditional documentary sense, but through a method that acknowledges the language of photography’s limitations within the frame. Looking at Lerma’s photographs, you get the sense that he is the only one present for miles and miles—how does he find these spaces, and how does he interact with them without disruption? But Lerma’s introduction to what he now calls “the Greenfield Archive” is quite the departure from the sleek aesthetic of his previous practice, less to do with making his own photographs, and more focused on unlearning the structures that his years of formal training built up.
At first, this conceptual untangling made the mysterious box difficult to approach in a creative sense. Lerma knew it was important to him, but didn’t quite know how to interact with it. He remembers, “When we took the box home, it sat inside of a wardrobe in our apartment for a few weeks, even months. I was really hesitant about creating something out of those negatives. In a previous project, A Place to Disappear, where I worked with vernacular photographs and negatives, each of the objects were from the New York Public Library and Cornell University, so each image had so many details attached to it. Here, without that institutional information, it was somehow more difficult for me to create a connection to the material.”
Every so often, Lerma would open the wardrobe, pull out the box, and inspect the negatives in the light, discovering something new each time he interacted with them. After many months, he started scanning them, and also began researching the geography of the USA to better understand the location of Greenfield, Massachusetts. To his surprise, there were more than 25 states in the country containing a town called Greenfield. “At that moment, I realized Greenfield was much bigger, and more akin to a stage for investigating American society during the time the images were produced,” he explains. Lerma scanned his collection over a number of weeks, often for eight hours a day, tracing the photographs’ dates, which were recorded on the envelopes from roughly the late 1930s to 1960s.
With this rough timeline, he delved deeper into American history, discovering that after the Second World War, the United States experienced an unprecedented baby boom motivated by veterans returning to the country, who were in need of cheap housing for their families. This catalyzed the birth of American suburbs, which were hastily constructed to accommodate growing families to live outside of major cities.
“When you look through these pictures, there are no images from cities,” Lerma explains. “In fact, it’s the opposite, and all of the families are white. My research showed that when the first suburb in America, called Levittown, was created, it was specified that only families of Caucasian race could move in. All of this information—the post-war baby boom, the suburbs and the history of segregation—helped me understand why middle class white families are often the dominant representation in these photographic narratives.”
Lerma then started looking through old snapshot camera manuals, often made by Kodak, and found even more interesting information about the construction of visuals in this chapter of American society. “Even though most of the negatives in the Greenfield Archive were produced with larger and more professional cameras, I started to realize that the photographers were aware of the trends of the moment, because they followed the same instructional aesthetic outlined in these Brownie manuals. I started to see how this concept of a ‘good photograph’ was constructed—the distance between camera and subject, or explicit instruction that the photographer had to be a man and the subject had to be a woman. Looking through the illustrations in those manuals, you start to see that there were defined roles in the representation of photography at that moment.”
The peculiar thing about vernacular photography is that we often consider it to be the closest thing we can get to an authentic or objective moment. Studio photographs are staged, documentary photographs are laced with the goals and aspirations of their makers, experimental photographs are saturated with the personal tastes of their creator, but vernacular images—family photographs, albums, snapshots—can’t possibly be riddled with intention. The stakes just aren’t high enough. But here, flipping through Kodak manuals, staring at the posed, straight white faces before him, Lerma started to realize that objectivity was often just as scarce in these ‘candid’ moments.
If the snapshots themselves were shaped by industry rules, Lerma recognized that there might be more power in commentating on this lineage rather than attempting to ground the archive in static, historical facts. “It soon became obvious that this was the only way to fill in the gaps and give new meaning to the images. This project wasn’t about Greenfield, Massachusetts. It was about Greenfield: The Archive, where Greenfield is a stage presenting open questions for anyone to answer.”
And what better way to present the relationship between fiction and material evidence than through another work of construction: the photobook. Lerma reached out to nineteen writers, asking them if they would be interested in contributing a piece about the archive in whatever method suited them—prose, poetry or historical research—expecting a handful to reply. To his surprise, sixteen of them responded, and after three months, the pieces started rolling in. When he sat down to read each text, Lerma realized he couldn’t always distinguish between heavy historical research and fabricated accounts, which ranged from tales narrated from the perspective of the subjects to socio-cultural commentary on race and sexuality.
“The entire process was like performing a surgery, and it became clear that in the end, every interpretation of the archive is actually some sort of fiction. In my own essay, I reflect on my experience with the materials in a physical way, but also as a gay man who doesn’t see himself represented in the Greenfield Archives. In the end, this collection stands in for many other archives that put forth this strange, utopic representation of the world.”
Equipped with his new set of written perspectives, Lerma began playing around with the various narratives that his prospective photobook could take, creating dummies and approaching publishers, many of whom were interested in the elusive pictures. But he soon realized that a shiny, narrated version of the images—the format easiest to sell publishers on—wasn’t how he wanted the project to take shape. With the help of a publishing fellowship from Art Jove in collaboration with Centre d’Art La Panera, he was able to create the conceptual publication that best fit his line of inquiry, whether the marketability of its final form was immediate and effortless or not.
Greenfield: The Archive is a coil-bound, charcoal-black soft cover photobook. At first glance, it looks like two publications stacked on top of one another, but when you pick it up and begin flipping through its pages, understanding its structure, it becomes apparent that these two sections are actually dual parts of a greater whole. The first section measures 5.75 x 7.75 inches, and its direct cover depicts faded, silvered duplicates of five of the images contained within. Their sheen calls to mind the chemical qualities of the gelatin silver process, and the oxidization that occurs when old negatives and prints go through the process of ‘silvering out.’
Opening this section, we are met with the title page, “Part I: Notes on the Archive,” which contains the collection of writings submitted to Lerma by his sixteen contributors. Each piece is signed off with the initials of the writer, appearing more as letters and correspondence than official essays. The full credits appear at the very end of the section, without distinction of their intention as fact or fiction, followed by Lerma’s own reflection. After this we are guided to the second section, measuring 7.75 x 9.85 inches, titled “Part II: The Archive,” containing inverses of the black and white and color negatives, respectively, as well as the few included prints and an ‘envelope index’.
Sifting through this section, images start to appear one page at a time, sometimes in small groupings of two or three and other times in larger collections that take up entire pages. While this might seem like an intentional act of sequencing and curation, it is actually a visual record of which images appeared together in which envelope. Lerma hasn’t edited them down for us to consume in a series of ‘decisive moments’—instead we see the full scope of subject matter, from possible outtakes to blurry accidents, to indiscernible, repetitive framings. At the bottom of each page, Lerma records the accompanying file numbers and titles inscribed on each envelope, formalizing the handwritten notations into his new interpretation.
While he did acquire the images as negatives, they appear as positives in the book—an intentional choice that allows visitors to engage with the repetition and subject matter of each photograph organically, rather than through their radical inversions. The color images appear after the constellation of black and white photographs, signalling the emergence of new processes and the societal transition away from monochrome methods. Lerma’s diligent catalogue of each envelope connects the vessels back to their accompanying prints through file numbers, notes and physical descriptions of their content, so that the reader can flip back and forth between the material, making limitless associations.
At first, this frills-free way of presenting the work might seem static and bare, reflecting the ostensibly synthetic world of data-entry more than the malleable universe of fiction. But for Lerma, the standards that human beings have developed to catalogue images—in photo studios, museums and archives around the world—are just as much a work of fiction as Greenfield’s accompanying textual perspectives. In order to make sense of the chaotic world of vernacular photography, cataloguing specialists assign data-based narratives to them, guiding the ways we access and interpret their information, drawing conclusions about their making. In the same way we take the subjectivity of snapshots for granted, we also tend to think of cataloguing as an objective practice.
“To me, archivists in museums are magicians—they incorporate social background, heritage and life experience into a system that presents itself as completely objective. They have to find ways to work around the limitations and standards of museum conventions, somehow incorporating their own experience, which undeniably results in a subjective point of view. As an artist working with archives, I don’t see any tension between myself and an archivist; in fact, I think we both create fiction, just on different levels. Archives and museums play with different structures, and their institutional power dignifies their message in a capacity that I might not be able to reach as an artist—but we both produce records with the same ingredients.”
At the tail end of his working with the Greenfield images, Lerma’s own surroundings started to shift: he and his family decided to move to the Netherlands to pursue a new set of professional opportunities. Needless to say, his immersion in this new type of photographic work, mixed with a substantial geographical move, further altered his relationship to the medium.
“I always felt like I had so many ideas, but I was deeply attached to the assumption that I had to construct images from scratch, in a very intentional way, to match those thoughts. Making Greenfield: The Archive taught me that I can give new life to images that already exist in the world, and that it’s okay that I don’t always produce the photographs on my own. I am always extremely careful, trying to see three steps ahead of me at all times, which often establishes too many boundaries and limitations. But with Greenfield, I didn’t look at any other work, and I didn’t pay attention to anything that was happening in relation to other archival projects. For the first time, I wasn’t worried about the final result—I just trusted the process.”
Speaking with Lerma, it’s clear that, more than ever before, the artist has found a project where each overturned stone welcomes even more questions, which he sets out to continue asking and answering through his publishing collaborations with other artists. Inspired by Greenfield, Lerma set up his own publishing imprint, Meteørø Editions, where he explores the archival work of other makers. His main wish is that these projects inspire curiosity and wonder in his own audience—as both artist and publisher.
Looking back on his journey, he reflects, “When people interact with these books, I want them to experience the same thing that I experience: every time I open up Greenfield: The Archive, I discover something new. Even after spending so much time with this material, I always find something I haven’t noticed before. I want people to approach the book as an endless source of stories: Who do you think the photographer is? Can we possibly know from the images alone? Many would say yes; others might see something different. But the magic of it is that each question leads you to more intriguing questions to grapple with.”