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The Last Frame: An Archival Countdown

by Lauren Reese

FRAME 1A: From unidentified roll, c. 1980

Photo © MCA Chicago

blog intro

Nostalgia is in the air as we approach the MCA’s 50th anniversary, and those visual objects of nostalgia can be found in the photo archive of the Rights and Images department. The Rights and Images team continues to archive our physical photographic materials, which have become an influential resource for reflection on our history as a contemporary art institution. This photo series pays tribute to that history with an intimate and unique point of view: through the documentation of our exhibitions, artists, events, visitors, and staff.

on the happy accident

As a Rights and Images Assistant I have directly handled, digitized, and archived mass amounts of negatives, transparencies, and photographic prints. Over time, I noticed an oddity with the institution’s earlier photographs: the happy accident. These accidents, sometimes referred to as “wasted” or “extra” frames, occur when photographers manually advance their Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera upon loading film and finishing a roll in order to wind it back into the cartridge. They can also be found in frames taken between photo shoots—separating several different events, performances, and exhibitions on a single roll as a way to conserve resources.

Because these frames were rarely meant to be seen by anyone but the photographer, they offer a very intimate sense of the cultural and social context of the MCA at any given time, dating back to the institution’s opening in 1967. I’ve come across some extremely bizarre and wonderful images that allude to the photographer’s identity, as well as the objects and places around them. Depending on the photographer’s habits and preferences, these frames could have been entirely exposed to light upon loading. Other times, subject matter featured whatever the camera was incidentally pointed at (where happy accidents are plentiful) or whatever the photographer chose to photograph until the counter read “01.” These moments are most frequent toward the end of the roll, where a photographer can really value or discard their last frame.

Page 12 of Introduction to the Canon AE-1, The Basic Steps to Picture Taking, 1980. © 1980 Canon Inc

Photo: Electronic copy © M. Butkus, NJ

on the series

The sequence of the forthcoming monthly posts over the next year refers to the standard length of 35 mm film: 36 frames. Each month we will post three more frames that run the gamut of time along with cats and building construction to street fairs and an Angela Davis–inspired mural. Here we start with frame 01 as we count down to the last frame (36) in anticipation of our 50th anniversary!

FRAME 2: From documentation of the Keith Haring Mural Project, May 17, 1989

Photo: Joe Ziolkowski, © MCA Chicago

FRAME 3: From documentation of the Keith Haring Mural Project, May 17, 1989

Photo: Joe Ziolkowski © MCA Chicago