Ben Alper has been collecting vernacular photographs for nearly a decade, trolling eBay auctions, thrift stores, and junk sales to decontextualize strangers’ forgotten photographic gems, occasionally posting them in phantasmic sequence on his ongoing blog The Archival Impulse. Unlike many of today’s most widely known collectors whose practices focus largely on curating, editing and archiving, Alper often threads his collecting into his work by manipulating the images to give them unexpected meaning. His most recent collection “Adrift” takes this into new territory with its alteration and publication of a fully intact cruise-ship vacation photo album that Ben discovered in a junk store in 2011.
The album, a commemoration of a single trip on the Royal Princess Cruise Ship in 1991, presents a mystery of friendship, romance, and other ambiguities unknown to Ben and the outside viewer. Like any vacation album, this includes poolside photos, snapshots of tropical wildlife, sunsets, champagne-glass towers, and garish buffets blasted with harsh on camera flashes. In their original capacity, the images likely served to document the protagonists’ journey as a keepsake, their experience existing, as Sontag once wrote, "to end in a photograph." But with Alper’s hand in sequence, cropping, and digital manipulation, the images take on an uncanny narrative, one that both highlights an absurdity in the commemorative moment, and creates a desire to understand the relationship between the two men involved.
Alper began manipulating these images as a means of understanding the flaws associated with photography’s attempts to preserve experience and memory. “The vast majority of the photographs we make now for the purposes of documentation never materialize in a tactile form,” writes Alper. “So for me, the gesture of conflating the physicality of the snapshot with the intangibility of digital processes is about exploring what materiality means in a digital age.”
Alper’s lo-fidelity adjustments range from subtle crops, to blurred faces and rippled, discolored artifacts caused by dragging the pictures slightly while scanning them. “It also raises questions,” writes Alper, “about the manner in which personal photographic histories are now presented, ordered and recalled.” Alper’s digital hijacking emphasizes the tactility of their documentation, and imbues their intended wholesomeness with an uncomfortable science fiction. For Alper, the album’s existence as a fully intact diary-of-sorts, presented an opportunity to fuse his tendencies as a collector of individual snapshots with his constantly evolving artistic practice.
Ben Alper is an artist based in North Carolina. He received a BFA in photography from the Massachusetts College of Art & Design in Boston and an MFA in Studio Art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His work has been shown and published both nationally and internationally. In 2014, he was awarded a Peter S. Reed Foundation Grant. He is also the co-founder of A New Nothing, an online platform for long-term visual conversations between artists.