Footnote²: Frank van der Stok

The Input Party invited curator and photo analist Frank van der Stok to contribute to our Footnote series. In the last months, he submerged himself in the photo archive of the Library of Congress. For this Footnote, van der Stok offers four photo collections extracted from the archive. With his selection and accompanying texts van der Stok brings a new perspective to photographs almost forgotten.

Below the collections you can find the introduction text Transformations.

Explore the collections here ↓


Text by Frank van der Stok, translation by Taco Hidde Bakker

It shall have been a little over a decade ago since a befriended photographer pointed me to the online catalog of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. ( I then could barely fathom the importance of digital globalization, network cultures, and the accessibility of gargantuan amounts of image material, to be had at the ease of a mouse click.

Meanwhile, I fully recognize the incredible speed with which digital developments have happened in recent years. The Library of Congress started in 1994 with the goal of digitizing its collections for online accessibility (with the aim of eventually arriving at an online collection of 15 million items). At the time I worked for the nederlands fotoarchief (nfa)—which later became the collection department of the Nederlands Fotomuseum (NFM) in Rotterdam—to catalog and describe their archives of negatives. I described each negative using four tags, for which a certain art historical schooling was indispensable. When the nfa started digitizing the archives of the likes of Ed van der Elsken and Cas Oorthuys (initially using a video camera!) the expenses for this type of heritage conservation were inadequately estimated. Expenses skyrocketed while governments only reluctantly subsidized endeavors such as ours. And so I was kicked out and replaced by students in need of a side job.

The urge for experiencing a heart-felt ‘magic’ brought me to Italy in 1986. I wanted to see with my own eyes the panel painting, in the Convent of San Marco in Florence, showing the stake at which Savonarola was burned. I imagined how Luca della Robbia must have been glazing the azure-blue medallions (Volta della cappella del Cardinale del Portogallo, San Miniato al Monte). I placed myself in their shoes and became a witness to the aforementioned stake at the Piazza della Signoria on an ordinary May day in 1498. Like traveling in a time machine, I tried to inhale the ‘historical sensation’ during the 24 hours I was given and, most of all, to look beyond the obvious landmarks.

Back in the headquarters in Amsterdam I similarly got into the grip of the lure of the historicizing reliving of past occurrences. For instance, I wish to spend time on the roundabout near the RAI convention center, so to be catapulted back to Jacques Tati’s Traffic (1971). I always like to cross the Raadhuisstraat in 1973 (Paul Verhoeven’s Turks Fruit, of which the bicycle scene leaves me cold, but I’m always turned on by the everyday streetscape). Last but not least, on the Nieuwendijk I want to inhale a hundred times the magic atmosphere surrounding the transverse flute player while Ed van der Elsken is filming him in 1983.

I learned about Johan Huizinga’s concept of the ‘historical sensation’ while studying art history at Leiden University. Quickly, I wounded up with the ‘aura’ of photography (Benjamin), which I sensed in the photographs by the likes of Charles Marville, Walker Evans and Alexander Rodchenko, but also in the work of contemporaries such as Wijnanda Deroo, Paul Bogaers and Paul den Hollander. This became all the more precious since I started running Fotomania, one of only a handful of (not-for-profit) photography galleries in the Netherlands, where I could live out my fascination for fragments of time and history as they have been captured in photographs.

In many a photograph offered by this historicizing tendency is conjured up but there has been a substantial shift in my approach to photographs as relics of time, from sensing the historical sensation (<1839) and/or the aura of photography (>1839) to navigating more and more inside the photographs. Each image latently comprises an accumulation of sub-scenes, proportionate to the intensity of one’s focus. When in 1999 I had invited Hans-Peter Feldmann (known for Voyeur and, more importantly, for OHIO) and Julian Germain (known for Steelworks and Soccer Wonderland), and one or two years later Larry Sultan (Pictures from Home; Evidence; LA Suburbs) and Mark Klett (Second View and, to speak in Rotterdam, each of them spoke with affection about everything happening in the image’s peripheral fields and about the unforeseen qualities one often finds in snapshots. They also demonstrated how one could see images from completely different angles. As such, they proved to be “eye-openers” of the highest order.

Flip Bool (who at the time directed the nfa) and I had found each other in our love for artists who, in one way or another, made use of (found) footage in their work. Bool enabled me to curate the decade-long, comprehensive program The Past in the Present and was always indirectly involved as mentor. After having arrived at a point of saturation with pre-existing images my attention shifted toward visual arts-oriented photographic applications and concepts. Artists like Gert Jan Kocken, Hannes Walraven, David Claerbout, Alfredo Jaar, Lewis Baltz, Arnoud Holleman and Loodwicks Press Images dealt with historical tipping points and alternative disentanglements of history, often imagined as alternative history, fiction, and the ‘speculative’. The common denominator of these rich minds is that their photo projects were marked by ambiguity, disruption and controversy and an attitude that in recent years has been fashioned ‘artistic research’.

A crucial moment that triggered a lot came when in 2007, as part of a commission for The Past in the Present, Kocken rephotographed a microfiche screenshot of the New York Times frontpage of September 11, 2001. Something happened there what I had qualified, in my edited volume Questioning History (NAi Publishers, 2008), as “the short-circuiting between seeing and knowing”. I was put on alert and began looking more and more for images with the potential of being (or becoming) visual essays, in stark contrast to commonplace visual culture. How exciting when images stimulate alternative interpretations and new ways of seeing!

First and foremost, there is an awful lot to do in the field of transhistorical cross-linking. A denotative historical image, which has become a fixed representation without additional value or dimension, is deadly dull if you ask me. There are many new connections and associations to be made with other images, in terms of visual rhyme, the transhistorical cross-link, or the bizarre connection to a motif that did not present itself at the moment of exposure, but is later revealed by association or intervention. This could be literal such as in the portrait gallery below, in which the ravages of time changes the appearance of motifs or transforms them beyond recognition.

In my mini-essay ‘Kill Our Icons’ (2014) I looked at those rusty photo icons from our historical consciousness and, considering our fluid times, proposed alternative images without apparent iconic value but which indirectly tell more pregnant stories than the types of images calling for linear cause-and-effect explanation. It fits an appropriate way of doing journalism: ‘the highlights say it all’. I don’t think so. Of course, journalism has to adhere to this format, but at the same time leaves us behind disillusioned. Everything that happened before, as well as the surrounding conditions that made things happen in the first place, are left out of the picture. And we don’t want to see reality with the descriptive eyes of say Jimmy Nelson, Jean Revillard or Gilles Peress, do we? I then prefer the imagination to derive new meanings from images that provide us with cryptic clues, but which viewers have to complete themselves.

The background stories—the official and unofficial as well as ‘oral history’ and ‘user-generated content’—tell us ten times as much. Not seldom it is the powerful combination of image and text that generates transhistorical, associative, incongruous, ambiguous, upsetting, reversible, and speculative modes of image-thinking. Here lies the challenge: how to navigate and give meaning to the staggering amount of available material?

I won’t say it is about celebrating the past. It is only that through time many different meanings and conditioned ways of seeing accumulate, which makes archival footage even more suitable for scraping off its ‘chrome layers’. The past re-contextualized in the present. (This is also why I co-founded the artist co-op Radical Reversibility; to reconsider our habitual ways of seeing, thinking, acting and feeling from counter-perspectives and alternative modes of perception.

It may therefore as well be about a future lens-based art project, which dizzyingly attempts to conjure up a transformative ambiguity by charging the image with such tantalizing qualities. Let’s promote the visual essay that meets the wish to say so much more than an image’s original intention. Consider the visual essay to be a little finger exercise toward a world of increased transformative ambiguity.

I’m still drowning in the tens of thousands of images that I encountered on Each photo comprises a unique fragment of time where I can swirl until the vortex exhausts me. However, I’m not so much interested in standalone images but in the unprecedented register of possibilities that can be opened when in each separate photo one senses the many clues leading to new stories.

Frank van der Stok is a curator, editor, advisor, author and tutor.

He is also part of art & research initiative Radical Reversibility.


Many thanks to Taco Hidde Bakker & Wibe Koopman


This contribution was commissioned by The Input Party for the series Footnotes.

Explore the Archive of the Library of Congress here: