Photographic archives invite us to piece together historical narrative, making sense of a time and place through the visual documents left behind. Collected Shadows provides a rare glimpse into the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC), an organization whose collection and exhibition practices challenge us to reassess the very foundations of how we visualize the past and present. For the AMC, the “task is to engage with and constantly reassess the legacy of the incoming photographic stream—to capture something of its metamorphosis.” Through unexpected juxtapositions and associations across time periods, geographies, techniques, and subject-matter, the exhibition presents wonderfully eccentric salon-style arrangements that cohere into rich stories when they are regarded together on the gallery walls.

Based in the UK and Canada, the AMC collects photography of all kinds at a pace that can only be described as frenetic: the archive houses more than four million images, two hundred of which are on display at MOCCA. Inclusion in the AMC’s collection is not about renown, though “important” photographers such as Robert Frank and Gustave Le Gray are indeed represented; rather, what unites this archive is quite simply, and profoundly, the extraordinary. Some images take our breath away, whether by dazzling or otherwise communicating a sense of sights unseen; others present a puzzling angle on the everyday. The archive collects amateur and professional photography, press archives, and scientific and anthropological images, covering a range of subjects, from militarism to abstract visual experiments to domestic life. Collected Shadows engages the collection through departures on natural and supernatural themes: earth, fire, air, and water are complemented by a focus on divinity, astrology, and flight.

Sometimes the extraordinary emerges through the associations drawn by the exhibition’s thoughtful arrangements. A grouping of vivid blue cyanotypes includes a photograph by Johann Böhm that seems abstract until we learn from the caption that the strange pattern depicts “iron filings under the influence of electricity” (c. 1925). Beneath a breathtaking image of sand dunes by Charles Henry Turner (1890), a group of late 19th-century photographers aim their cumbersome solar enlargers skyward. In a basic sense, these images are shown together because they were made with the same technique: the early printing process noted for its use in architecture and natural history, and its characteristic blue hues. But as our eyes move up and down the gallery walls, a closer interpretation takes shape: one that draws associations across time and space, between the photographic medium and other mechanical apparatuses, and amongst the natural world and the technological realm.

The collection takes its title from a founding interest in photography from the First and Second World Wars; the AMC often focuses on unseen, amateur depictions of these eras, quite unlike the images embedded in our collective memory. Collected Shadows includes several images of conflict and the cultures of militarism, such as a black-and-white photograph by Willi Ruge (1932) that shows a record-setting, female parachute-jumper poised at the lip of a plane’s hatch. Taken between the wars, the image depicts the pervasiveness of military culture during this period. A Cold-War era mushroom cloud from a 1970 atomic bomb test conducted by the French military in Tahiti is especially resonant as one of the exhibition’s few colour images. The photograph highlights the oddity of this experiment in such a pristine, tropical locale, evoking the violent upheaval war brings to everyday life. To help interpret these often-unattributed photographs, viewers are provided with captions that offer some background information, though it is frequently the associations drawn between images that illuminates their context when provenance is unknown.

British curator Timothy Prus and his colleagues at the AMC search out oddities, curiosities, and photographic ephemera for the international collection. Work is acquired from all four corners of the world, at the smallest flea market stands and the largest institutions, auctions, and photo dealers, purchased for a penny in some cases to tens of thousands in others. Complete albums are a focus, and the integrity of these carefully assembled volumes is maintained in hopes of understanding the narratives contained within their pages. Some images from the collection are circulated through the AMC’s innovative publishing arm, which brings photography out into the world through inspired book and journal projects that are exemplary of this unorthodox organization.

The AMC’s mandate is to preserve photographs that would otherwise be forgotten along with the histories they contain. This landmark exhibition reflects the archive’s unique perspective on how photographs and our means of interpreting them shape broader understandings of the past and contemporary experience. With Collected Shadows, the AMC works to “store, explore, and represent the lost shadows that lens-based technologies have scattered to the wind,” illuminating the sense of wonder we bring to our engagements with photography.

Organized by the Archive of Modern Conflict, London.
Co-presented with the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art.
Curated by Timothy Prus.