Comets in Counter Space
A Diaporama from the Archives of Comet Photo AG
In collaboration with ETH-Bibliothek’s Image Archive, the exhibition venue Counter Space in Zurich presents a three-part, associative image and sound project based on the historical genre of the diaporama.
The three-part diaporama at Counter Space comprises a selection of photographs from the holdings of the former Zurich-based photographic agency Comet Photo AG. ETH-Bibliothek acquired the collection in the year 2000, enabling users to access a broader range of image material. Thanks to around 900,000 press images dating from the early 1950s to the 1990s, some of which have been digitised, the archive has received a tremendous boost. Around 27,000 images from these holdings are currently available online, roughly 500 of which are featured in the exhibition.
Roland Lüthi from the Image Archive of ETH-Bibliothek, Zurich-based artist Ursula Sulser and composer Charles Uzor from St. Gallen teamed up with the curators of Counter Space, Angelo Romano and Linda Jensen, to design the exhibition, which comprises three image projections set to music.
The first projection displays images related to the agency itself: the Comet staff taking, developing, blowing up, filing, arranging, viewing and organising photographs. Tools ranging from photographic equipment and Dictaphones to index cards containing the metadata and views of the archive’s current location at ETH Zurich are also on display. The other two projections feature actual contemporary documents created by Comet Photo AG in almost half a century: press images and reports from Switzerland, and photographs from trips and holidays abroad, all of which provide an insight into the world as seen and captured by the “Comets,” as the Comet staff dubbed themselves.
Paola Paleari: Why did you decide to re-stage a huge archive as Comet Photo’s one? How did you manage to avoid getting lost in the process?
Linda Jensen: There was a will to situate the archive differently, within an independent art space. To work with the site and its characteristics. The site, a former bank, is now a building being made available for cultural and social uses for a limited time. The former offices have been transformed into an exhibition space that lines one of the busiest streets trafficwise in Switzerland.
The presentation at Counter Space, despite the inevitable subjective handling, also suggests a will to take a distance from a purely artistic interpretation in favour of an attempt to activate historical materials in an alternative way, which Roland and Ursula will detail in a moment.
Roland Lüthi: The idea of the exhibition project emerged during the preparatory work for a book project. In the fall of 2014 the image archive of the ETH- Bibliothek started to systematically select and digitize a considerable amount from a total of 900,000 Comet images, as a starting point for the work on the book. This pool of some 20,000 images then also served as a reservoir for the creation of the exhibition. It can be considered as the “Comet essence” in a 24-minute-long video.
From those 20,000, a selection of about 500 images was made for the three videos. There was never any real danger of getting lost in the process because the amount of images was already limited.
PP: Why did you adopt a collaborative and multidisciplinary approach? How did you reach an agreement on your different visions?
Roland Lüthi: The diaporama with the Comet images took shape from the outset. The diaporama genre determined the whole following process: we needed both sound and moving images. Basically I was doing the selection process in the archive, Ursula was doing the video and Charles was giving us the music.
The most difficult part was the sound. We tried a lot of different music, voices and sound recordings. We experimented with all three and gradually removed them, until we came to a final version with only two acoustic music tracks. Finally, we got to a very quiet and meditative result. We wanted people to be able to follow their own thoughts and drift away.
PP: Apart for its poetic nature, are there other reasons why you chose the genre of the diaporama instead of the slideshow?
Ursula Sulser: The genre of the diaporama is able to host a large amount of images, wherein one uses several slideshows simultaneously. In our case, it is in actual fact not a slideshow but a video, which was assembled in FinalCutPro. This process allowed us to create strands of narratives with images fading into each other.
PP: On which criteria did you operate the selection of the images to be displayed?
Roland Lüthi: The selection for the two main videos was rather intuitive. The main guiding line was the avoidance of “iconic” images, meaning the really “good” images that found their way into the print media of their time and also in the recently published book about Comet. Take for example the reportage on the wedding of Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer in Switzerland in 1954. We purposely did not choose the images of the couple coming out from the wedding chapel, but the pictures that show the red carpet on which the couple would later walk on. These are very beautiful but unspectacular images which are able to create small narratives. For the third video we selected “behind the scenes” images of the agency: photographers at work, archivists in the archive etc. It runs separately from the two main videos.
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