Digging the Archive

And Finding Erna Eckstein

The Erna Eckstein Exhibition was launched on Sunday December 6th and has been visited by an unexpected large online audience. Since the numerous feedbacks demand an answer, this contribution is an attempt to give one. A part of the responses praise the creative use of archival material. Obviously, discoveries made in the archive excite not only the archivist, but also the public if they can take part in it. And indeed, there is a lot of archival material still waiting in the shelves for discovery.

Except for a few enthusiasts, archives can be very tiresome places and usually it is more difficult to extract an exciting story from than scientific data. Not so this time when we discovered pictures documenting a life which contributed so much to this country and earns our gratitude. But let’s start at the beginning.

When we first handled “Eckstein’s” colour slides waiting on the archive shelves, we never questioned that they belong to Albert Eckstein’s legacy like all the black and white negatives, which are known already to a wider public. After digitizing “Albert’s” slides we started working on metadata. While looking at the images, we realized that there was something wrong with them, since they seemed to have been taken after Albert’s death in 1950. The faded colours, cars and fashion of the people in the pictures pointed mainly to the 50ies and 60ties. But confusingly there were many details and topics which seemed to prove Albert as the photographer, as they were the very same like on his known black and white pictures: braids, storks, smiling women and children’s faces, spolia, cities, architecture etc. As such, this very simple question provoked us:  who took these slides?

Consequently, we started literally digging the archive. When we combined the information about how and when Ecksteins’s legacy reached us with Erna’s life story, suddenly it all made sense. Yes, these slides were Erna’s! Several years after the death of her husband, Erna was called to return to Turkey to complete a work which was left unfinished when the Ecksteins left the country in 1950. And this fulfilment, illustrated by these coloured pictures by Erna Eckstein, waited for decades to be discovered and relabelled with a secret delight by the archivist.

By digitalizing the archive, its material now reaches a larger public. Furthermore, archives can turn into places that tell their stories to a large audience, beyond just being a resource for scientific research through real or online exhibitions. They protect and keep its treasures like a Renaissance-scholarly “Wunderkammer” and open their doors like a museum. Above all the possibilities of the digital world increase the importance of digging the archive as the current exhibition of the photo archive shows us. The answer to the above question should therefore not only satisfy our curiosity but also had to be found in terms of the reliability of our archive. Yes, archives are reliable and honest places. Like libraries, they have to serve the public by opening their doors widely and with free entrance and provide reliable information to everyone.


Berna Güler, Fotothek DAI Istanbul