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Photographic Palimpsest

Glitch03At the Brighton Photo Biennial study visit I introduced Matthew Cornford’s, David Cross’s and Andrew Lacon’s exhibition Plane Materials, which explored the dialogue between photography and sculpture. In particular it was Cornford’s & Cross’s ‘After Image’ series of tray framed aluminium sheets that were the topic of discussion. Just to refresh your mind, the work was the large metal sheets that were previously aluminium-mounted images, which had been in storage. Cornford & Cross had removed the images to reveal their brushed aluminium substrate, subsequently destroying the photographic prints.
You could not see any residual image or even a trace of the adhesive that bonded the print to the aluminium sheets. They were bare, devoid of any clues as to their former state; only a short descriptive title offered some discernable discourse. On one sheet there was a dent that provided some evidence as to it’s handling, could this have occurred through the destructive act itself or via its transportation? As visually barren as they were, these sheets still provided a few avenues of interpretation, one being a proposed photographic palimpsest.
Palimpsest is simply the removal/reduction of a medium from its substrate and a new layer applied over the top, characteristically leaving a trace of what was. The most evidenced medium for palimpsest is text on parchment, where passages have been overwritten; a wonderful example can be seen here. Throughout our lives we have probably formed our own basic palimpsests; these could go back as far as our childhood drawings to filling out paperwork today. The most common one for me is the start of a new calendar year, where I typically write the previous year for a week or so and annoyingly make a mess of documents, resulting in rubbing out or writing over my mistake. Yay for 2014, I mean 2015… 
However it is through science, that the more visually engaging medium of painting can be investigated and its palimpsest brought to light. The x-raying of paintings has become a common practice nowadays to primarily ascertain the works authenticity. For example, uncovering the types of materials that are indicative to x-ray examination, such as lead used in certain paints. Yet, x-ray technology has revealed so much more; it has shown where artists have completely painted over other pieces of work, or if they struggled with the overall composition in some portraits. Here is a fascinating example of a Rembrandt portrait, which hidden beneath is believed to be an earlier unfinished self-portrait.
However, with photography and its various forms, palimpsest is not as evidenced as with manuscripts or paintings. The equivalency of a visual manifestation would be at the printing stage. Yet with inkjet or silver-gelatine printing, if there is an error the paper would be discarded and a fresh sheet used to complete the picture, thus inhibiting the chance for a rich layering process. Notions of double exposing at both the capture and the printing stage could happen, however this would be a conscious act and not keeping with the chance aesthetics and obscurity of mistakes made and covered. There is an interesting variation of a double exposure, where two glass plate negatives have stuck together forming an accidental layering. It can be viewed on the Australian National Maritime Museum’s flickr page.
In search of a photographic palimpsest, my investigations have led me to camera memory; in particular moderately large volume CF & SD cards and how through data recovery software an almost digital organic form of layering is occurring. Generally once you have completed a shoot and downloaded your images, you tend to delete them and wipe the card either via your computer or with the cameras format function. The card then reads empty and you believe all images are gone, yet you will be surprised how much remaining information is tucked away in your cards data clusters.
Using this data recovery software on a second-hand 16GB CF card purchased from eBay, which was sold as formatted, about 4.5GB of images were recovered. The card predominantly contained a lot of Canon RAW files (CR2’s) and quite a few JPEG’s from various cameras that dated back to 2006; I doubt the card was made then, but possibly it has been used as a data storage device. The software had fully reconstructed the images along with their metadata; there was a mixture of holiday snapshots, band work and some portraits. Yet it is not these images that interest me; it is a couple where the data has been partially overwritten and corrupted, which has caused some random anomalies, ‘glitches’. See the title image as an example, where it looks like two, possibly three separate photographs have been merged into one file.
In a way this occurrence is akin to the movement of ‘Glitch Art’, where artists purposefully tweak and corrupt digital files to cause random glitches to explore their unpredictable and creative outcomes. So can there truly be a photographic palimpsest where there are layers upon layers hiding and disguising mistakes and decisions made? Or can it only exist in a manipulative and synthetic state where layers are purposefully formed to be decoded in an elaborate ruse?
Perhaps through our ever-increasing digital libraries, new palimpsests will form from the deluge of data, or maybe this data recovery process could be a new movement of found photography. Something to investigate for a later project…
Please see the links below for some further information and variations of palimpsest.
Going beyond using x-ray imaging, infrared imaging reveals more in this Picasso:
For some quirky architectural examples see:
A good blog post on graffiti:

Posted by author: Russell Squires
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