Greenfield: The Archive.
One day in July 2016, as artist Pablo Lerma and his husband coursed through the lanes of the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market in New York—a regular Sunday morning ritual for the couple—something caught his partner’s eye: a vendor selling a dark, wooden box full of small envelopes. Each paper vessel, inscribed with a file number and general notes, contained groupings of negatives, mostly in black and white, and a few in color.
The vendor approached the inquisitive Lerma, and explained how he acquired the box at an auction in Greenfield, Massachusetts, where the negatives were discarded by a photo store that went out of business. During his retelling, the vendor referred to the small images in Lerma’s hands as “the forgotten negatives.” Lerma reflects, “As soon as he said that, something resonated within me. I guess you could call that moment the starting point of the project—when he said it, I pictured it written with capital letters.” Acknowledging his curiosity, Lerma’s husband suggested purchasing the entire box for him as a birthday gift. After ten minutes of negotiating with the vendor, who initially propositioned the steep price of $500, the couple convinced him to whittle down the sale to a fraction of the price: $100.
Having worked as a photographer across multiple roles for over 10 years, Lerma wears a multitude of hats, from practitioner to researcher to educator and everything in between. The photographs of his own making are stark and striking, harnessing the otherworldly capacities of natural light, ethereal landscapes and humankind’s relationship to external spaces, not in a traditional documentary sense, but through a method that acknowledges the language of photography’s limitations within the frame. Looking at Lerma’s photographs, you get the sense that he is the only one present for miles and miles—how does he find these spaces, and how does he interact with them without disruption? But Lerma’s introduction to what he now calls “the Greenfield Archive” is quite the departure from the sleek aesthetic of his previous practice, less to do with making his own photographs, and more focused on unlearning the structures that his years of formal training built up.
At first, this conceptual untangling made the mysterious box difficult to approach in a creative sense. Lerma knew it was important to him, but didn’t quite know how to interact with it. He remembers, “When we took the box home, it sat inside of a wardrobe in our apartment for a few weeks, even months. I was really hesitant about creating something out of those negatives. In a previous project, A Place to Disappear, where I worked with vernacular photographs and negatives, each of the objects were from the New York Public Library and Cornell University, so each image had so many details attached to it. Here, without that institutional information, it was somehow more difficult for me to create a connection to the material.”
Every so often, Lerma would open the wardrobe, pull out the box, and inspect the negatives in the light, discovering something new each time he interacted with them. After many months, he started scanning them, and also began researching the geography of the USA to better understand the location of Greenfield, Massachusetts. To his surprise, there were more than 25 states in the country containing a town called Greenfield. “At that moment, I realized Greenfield was much bigger, and more akin to a stage for investigating American society during the time the images were produced,” he explains. Lerma scanned his collection over a number of weeks, often for eight hours a day, tracing the photographs’ dates, which were recorded on the envelopes from roughly the late 1930s to 1960s.
With this rough timeline, he delved deeper into American history, discovering that after the Second World War, the United States experienced an unprecedented baby boom motivated by veterans returning to the country, who were in need of cheap housing for their families. This catalyzed the birth of American suburbs, which were hastily constructed to accommodate growing families to live outside of major cities.
“When you look through these pictures, there are no images from cities,” Lerma explains. “In fact, it’s the opposite, and all of the families are white. My research showed that when the first suburb in America, called Levittown, was created, it was specified that only families of Caucasian race could move in. All of this information—the post-war baby boom, the suburbs and the history of segregation—helped me understand why middle class white families are often the dominant representation in these photographic narratives.”
Lerma then started looking through old snapshot camera manuals, often made by Kodak, and found even more interesting information about the construction of visuals in this chapter of American society. “Even though most of the negatives in the Greenfield Archive were produced with larger and more professional cameras, I started to realize that the photographers were aware of the trends of the moment, because they followed the same instructional aesthetic outlined in these Brownie manuals. I started to see how this concept of a ‘good photograph’ was constructed—the distance between camera and subject, or explicit instruction that the photographer had to be a man and the subject had to be a woman. Looking through the illustrations in those manuals, you start to see that there were defined roles in the representation of photography at that moment.”
The peculiar thing about vernacular photography is that we often consider it to be the closest thing we can get to an authentic or objective moment. Studio photographs are staged, documentary photographs are laced with the goals and aspirations of their makers, experimental photographs are saturated with the personal tastes of their creator, but vernacular images—family photographs, albums, snapshots—can’t possibly be riddled with intention. The stakes just aren’t high enough. But here, flipping through Kodak manuals, staring at the posed, straight white faces before him, Lerma started to realize that objectivity was often just as scarce in these ‘candid’ moments.
If the snapshots themselves were shaped by industry rules, Lerma recognized that there might be more power in commentating on this lineage rather than attempting to ground the archive in static, historical facts. “It soon became obvious that this was the only way to fill in the gaps and give new meaning to the images. This project wasn’t about Greenfield, Massachusetts. It was about Greenfield: The Archive, where Greenfield is a stage presenting open questions for anyone to answer.”