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Ex – The archive

[Nicky Bird’s] Question for Seller re-situates images in a different context and in so doing allows for a new dialogue to take place. Reflect on the following in your learning log:
– Does their presence on a gallery wall give these images an elevated status?
– Where does their meaning derive from?
– When they are sold (again on eBay, via auction direct from the gallery) is their value increased by the fact that they’re now ‘art’? (OCA C&N, p118)

The presence of any work in a gallery gives it the status of acceptance by the art establishment and consequently an elevated status to anyone who values the judgement of that gallery. Sontag comments in On Photography about how the placement of photographs created for documentary purposes are elevated to art by their placement in art institutions. Bird’s found photos’ status is certainly elevated from that of unwanted photos on eBay; they would have quite possibly been thrown away had they not been sold, and Bird tells us that she was the only one bidding on the lots.

Source: Belfastexposed.org
Source: Belfastexposed.org

Bird explains in her Photoparley interview that she finds it interesting that the photos have lost their context, information about place, time and people, yet still represent the vernacular ‘family’ and connections might be drawn to contemporary viewers experiences of family. It seems that Bird finds meaning in seeking present-day connections with these old, orphaned photographs; for example through the explanations provided by the seller of how they came by the photos; the ‘question for seller’. Personally, I find similar interest in looking at them as I would of snapshots taken by friends and family – I am not disinterested, but there is a limit to my interest and I would not consider them art; there is generally little skill, quality, intention or craft in their work. In terms of meaning through the concept of orphaned photos and their connection to their present, there seems nothing uniquely interesting in this – we are all human beings and connected in that broad sense across time.

When they are sold their monetary value (and I assume it is monetary value at question as we are discussing an auction website) is possibly negative, after allowing for the cost of Bird’s time and the space occupied in the gallery. Bird doesn’t tell us on her website how much the work sold for – I’m unclear whether this is due to an artistic reason, or if the silence is due to a sense of disappointment; Belfast exposed tell us that the work sold for £205 when auctioned on eBay.

I find a contrast in the value of Question for Seller and the value of Vivian Maier’s archive that was purchased by John Maloof, which is so valuable it has been subject to legal disputes and attracted worldwide attention. I think the difference in value is that Question for Seller is mostly about concept and, in my view, not a particularly interesting one at that. Whereas Maier’s work was, while also comprising historical and orphaned photos, was of high quality. It has substance.


Belfast Exposed [website]. Past exhibition – Question for Seller. Available from: http://www.belfastexposed.org/exhibition/question_for_seller [accessed 16.5.16]

Nicky Bird [website]. Projects – question for seller. Available from: http://nickybird.com/projects/question-for-seller/ [accessed 16.5.16]

Photoparley [website]. Nicky Bird – Interview. Available from: https://photoparley.wordpress.com/category/nicky-bird/ [accessed 16.5.16]

Vivian Maier [website]. Available from: http://www.vivianmaier.com [accessed 16.5.16]

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