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Interviews: The Archive of Modern Conflict

Happy Tonite, The Corinthians, Nein, Onkel, Coming Up For Air, Archaeology in Reverse,
and Hackeny Flowers, published and co-published by Archive of Modern Conflict.
When Googling the Archive of Modern Conflict, you will find precious little information aside from the AMC website displaying their fabulous publications. In the other tidbits found on the web the praise for AMC is high, as is the astonishment at the vast and varied archive housed in Kensington, London, but solid pieces of information are few. Each report comments on the mysterious nature of AMC, which we weren't sure how to interpret until we started our interview process. While it's still unclear if this air of mystery is cultivated or simply comes from a true disinterest in explaining oneself, I am beginning to believe the latter. Or maybe not. Well, maybe both, but with a healthy dose of evasive humor. What is clear is that their collection is significant and they are focused on producing amazing books, like the recently published Happy Tonite and a plethora of Stephen Gill titles co-published with Gill himself.

From what we have gathered, the Archive of Modern Conflict began as just that - a collection of images depicting unique aspects of war. Scrapbook (co-published by Steidl) depicts a series of found images -- newspaper clippings, drawings and other memorabilia -- that give a non-sectarian account of Northern Ireland's turmoil from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Another early and highly acclaimed publication, Nein, Onkel, offers a personal glimpse inside the lives of Nazi Third Reich members. But the range of fascinating materials that AMC came across expanded, and so did the archive. Funding sources are vague, but the acquisition of items seems to take various forms, including photo swap events, where editor Timothy Prus puts up his photographs to be traded for by photos brought by visitors, and individuals (once, apparently, former Polish spies) approach the archive to sell items. As for AMC's purpose or long term plans, that remains to be seen.

When considering our questions for the Archive's editors, Timothy Prus and Ed Jones, we knew that there was a distinct possibility that we might receive elusive answers. Our interactions with them for the Best Books feature proved them to be happy to contribute, but spare with their words. We had hoped to get more out of them with this interview, but to our laughter, they have remained evasive to the end. We submit to you here, our own little contribution to the scant information on this organization. The words themselves are few, but quite telling. Perhaps we were overzealous in our questioning - but who can blame us. When they produce such amazing books and provide a uniquely interesting resource, who wouldn't want to get a peak inside?

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photo-eye:   As the name indicates, the Archive of Modern Conflict's collection was focused on war. When AMC was founded, how was it initially conceived?

Archive of Modern Conflict:   As a tool for finding out what's going on in the world.

PE:   I've read that the archive is not merely regulated to photographs, but contains a wealth of esoteric material - we've seen mention of 18th C. cookbooks and a strange fishmonger's hat. When did the scope of the collection start to change and how did this happen? Has it altered the original purpose of the archive?

AMC:   The fishmonger's hat you mention could be found on the head of a Billingsgate porter in the well known Bill Brandt image. Objects have always been an integral part of the Archive and quite often have no purpose whatsoever.
Ed Jones

PE:   Does AMC have a mission statement? If so, what is it?

AMC:   At one time we collected mission statements, but as they're so common we've rather let this line peter out.

PE:   Considering the change in focus of what is acquired, what guidelines are used for selecting items to add to the archive? Can you give us an idea of how it is curated?

AMC:   The collection is curated by a flow of thought from participants.

PE:   Where do the items come from? Do you ever seek out a specific type of material or items on a specific topic?

AMC:   Yes we seek out specific things. It is strange that when we pray for something to arrive it nearly always does but often not in the imagined form.
Timothy Prus

PE:   I'm sure that you see a lot of really interesting artifacts, but I'd also imagine that with such a project you could get inundated with material. What's the most interesting acquisition to come into the archive in recent memory? How do you decide what makes the cut and can you tell us about something that didn't?

AMC:   Normally the most interesting thing is the last person who walked through the door although this isn't always the case.

PE:   I've heard that you have a Beijing branch - has this changed the kind of material that the archive is collecting? Are there plans to start AMC branches in other parts of the world?

AMC:   We have some other branches and it's possible in the future we may have more although it could be that we have less, or stay the same.

PE:   How does AMC control the release of the material in the archive? Is AMC's publishing house devoted exclusively to archive material? Was publishing part of the original conception of the archive?

AMC:   There wasn't really an original conception. Nothing is set in stone, jelly perhaps.

From The Corinthians
PE:   Here at photo-eye, The Corinthians is collectively one of our favorite photography books to be recently published. What are the origins of these images? Did they come as a complete collection or were they assembled from a variety of sources? Could you talk a bit about the concept and editing process for this book?

AMC:   The Corinthians was assembled from a variety of sources. We looked at about 50,000 kodachrome slides and then created the underlying narratives alongside and after the editing of images.

PE:   The recent book Happy Tonite is a really fantastic collection of contemporary Chinese photography. How did this book come about? Were the images originally in the archive or was the book created as an addition to the archive?

AMC:   We are really looking forward to the Sinofication of the Occident. Happy Tonite is a step on that road.

PE:    AMC has also worked closely with Stephen Gill in publishing a few of his books, recently Coming Up for Air and Outside In. What is AMC's relationship with Gill and how did this partnership come about? How did AMC and Gill work together on these projects?

AMC:   Some of Stephen's approaches to photography and aesthetics fit with the Archive in a very natural way. We work together with precious little torture or aggression. We both have a curious civic pride.

From Nein, Onkel
PE:   AMC has allowed exhibitions of images from the archive curated by notable photographers and historians. How have those collaborations come about? Does the AMC promote an active exhibition schedule or do these shows come about through outside request?

AMC:   Collaborations generally come through social interaction. The feeling around any project is as important as the articulation of content.

PE:   The archive isn't open to the public, but individuals may request access. How does that process work? Do people have to propose a project or can someone say, just come in to browse?

AMC:   We would love to have more interesting visitors but as we are a very small team it can be impractical. It's always wonderful to meet new people who can add coherent background information to the images. Access is an issue that we have to deal with on a day to day basis.

PE:   Are there plans for putting the archive material online? Or perhaps a list of the archive's contents? At the moment, is there any way for an outside individual to know what the archive contains?

AMC:   It depends, half and half.

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See books by the Archive of Modern Conflict here.

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