Documentary Photography & The Historical Archive in Joan Fontcuberta’s Sputnik

By Patricia de Vries

Already in the 1920s when the British founder of documentary photography John Grierson defined the practice as “the creative treatment of actuality,” issues of the document and of photographic realism were subject to debate.1 By the 1960s, in the context of conceptual photographic practices strongly influenced by linguistic and semiotic studies, the conception of photography as a transparent medium was subject to attacks that pulverized its credibility as dependable evidence; it came to be seen as a cultural construction. Photographs, it was understood, may appear as objective evidence; but are in fact subjective interpretations. Despite this belief, documentary photography today forms important, if not the quintessential, material in historical archives, the basis from which much modern history is written. The aim of this article is to explore the trust in the veracity of documentary photography as a historical image-document by way of an analysis of Joan Fontcuberta’s artwork Sputnik (1997). The work of the Catalan photographer and art critic Fontcuberta arises from the questions and paradoxes about the assumed realism of documentary photography. His extensively researched archival artwork Sputnik consists of an impressive amount of archival and documentary material documenting the life of Ivan Istochnikov, a Russian cosmonaut who disappeared during the flight of Soyuz 2 in 1968. How can we approach this work, and what does it unravel?

I See It When I Believe It

The term “archive” evokes a dusky place full of photographs, shelves lined with wrinkled pages, and smudged glass encasing cluttered artifacts. The exhibition space of Sputnik, part of the retrospective “De Facto. Joan Fontcuberta 1982 – 2008” (Barcelona, 2008), does much to reinforce this view.2 Entering the black-walled, dimly lit exhibition space, the objects and artifacts displayed are diverse: black and white photographs; showcases with newspaper articles; books documenting the Space Race between the USSR and the United States published by the Sputnik Foundation; many graphic records, radiographs and maps; electro-optical photographs and geophysical data that document the course of the space shuttle Soyuz 2 minute-by-minute; an episode of the Spanish TV show Cuarto Milenio; old cameras; zero gravity urine bags; personal notes of the cosmonaut and even a replica of the space craft Soyuz 2. A text on the wall explains:

Back at the height of the Space Race, when the United States and the USSR were working against the clock to land on the moon, the political pressures trumped concern about safety and the space program began to claim its toll of victims….On October 25, 1968, Soyuz 2 was launched from the Baikunur cosmodrome, with Pilot- Cosmonaut Colonel Ivan Istochnikov and the dog Kloka on board. For reasons that have never been made clear, the cosmonaut disappeared in the course of the mission. Istochnikov and Kloka had successfully carried out a spacewalk together, filmed by the camera’s on the outside of the ship, but because of a malfunction the crucial manoeuvre of docking with Soyuz 3 had to be aborted. The twin spacecraft drifted apart and lost contact. When Soyuz 3 managed to return to the docking position a few hours later the impact of a small meteorite was visible on the hull of Soyuz 2 and Istochnikov had vanished without a trace…

Strolling through the aisles, we get an impression of what appears to be the result of an admirable historical research project; visitors can even look into textbooks that describe the course of the epic project from its start at an auction of Russian space material at Sotheby’s in New York. Furthermore, next to texts that inform the reader about the cultural and historical background against which the Space Race took place, various black and white pictures are displayed that reconstruct the childhood, family life, career and space journey of Ivan Istochnikov. In two of the photographs, of which one is the photograph that was bought at the Sotheby’s auction, shows Istochnikov together with five men at an official occasion. The second photograph shows the exact same image; however, in this picture Istochnikov is missing.

A wall text continues:

Regardless of whether it was sabotage or an accident, the Soviet authorities were clear about not wanting to admit a fiasco and they designed a Machiavellian explanation: they announced that the Soyuz 2 had been an automatic, unmanned flight. To avoid contradictory voices his family was confined, his colleagues were blackmailed, the archives were doctored and photographs retouched….

It was only much later, with Glasnost and the subsequent fall of the Communist regime, that independent researchers of the Sputnik Foundation and Istochnikov’s relatives were able to unravel the fantastic fabrication and reinstate the missing man. The secret documents relating to the case were declassified and a wealth of images of Istochnikov’s day-to-day life, his training and his mission came to light, making it possible to reconstruct a remarkable episode that continues to defy belief even today.

The photographs displayed might be described as documentary, given their straightforward style, their lack of aesthetic effects, their strict framing and their neutral, descriptive captions that reinforces a feeling of time and space. With Sputnik, Fontcuberta presents an ordered collection of photographs, texts, documents and other archival material; the result of years of research.

Sputnik adopts an archival structure, an ordered presentation of photographic material, records and texts that serve to prove something – in this case resulting from activities of the Sputnik Foundation, in order to establish insight in and provide information about the life of Ivan Istochnikov. Though Fontcuberta never contends that his Sputnik installation is an archive, nor its contents documents, the information displayed in the Sputnik-archive nonetheless has been taken as “an authorized source of knowledge and legitimate evidence of the existence, identity and status” by the Spanish journalist and TV-moderator Iker Jeménez. On June 11, 2006, Jeménez devoted part of an episode of the Spanish television show Cuarto Milenio to the disappearance of Istochnikov. However, in spite of the detailed documentation, there never was a cosmonaut named Ivan Istochnikov, nor did he disappear in space. The exhibition material may seem real, but it is in fact an elaborate combination of manipulated photographs and fake and real documents fabricated by the artist. It is even the artist himself who appears in the photographs as Ivan Istochnikov.

Istochnikov comes into existence from an accumulation of documents, data and photographic evidence from different perspectives (journalistic, military, geological and personal). Someone who was supposedly ignored, erased even, has been made visible by way of tangible proofs and revealing documents. Sputnik provides Cuarto Milenio with a startling disclosure, to then deprive it once its fictional status is revealed. What is more, Sputnik confronts us with questions about the truth, veracity and certainty of archival image-documents and historical memory. It exposes our tendency to gullibly rely on historical information for interpreting and understanding historical events and thus humbles our notion of the authority of history. With Sputnik Fontcuberta succeeded excellently in challenging the prevailing trust in the authority of photography as archival source material on the basis of which history is written. If photography adopting the form of an archive can produce credible “evidence” of something that never occurred, then the notion of the image-document, as archival source material, is put in doubt. As Fontcuberta argues: “Because we should have asked ourselves: Evidence of what? Perhaps evidence only of its own ambiguity. What remains, then, of the document?”

In spite the knowledge of photography as a discursive cultural construct, the reception of Sputnik reveals that when photographs as image-documents are absorbed in an institutional archive, they obtain authority and the trust in photography as a transparent, objective, historical document remains standing. Photography as image-document continues to exert the function of an orthopedic crutch to the modern conscience in the archive: the camera does not lie and all photography is evidence. What shakes and disturbs in this work is not rooted in its production of a photo-novel, a science fiction story, but in its production of reality. Fontcuberta constructed a reality implying that the truth we are willing to accept is not necessarily recorded but can be produced. We have known this already for a long time. Why do we then we act

against our best judgment and become fooled before realizing it is fiction? It is Fontcuberta’s deliberate strategy to make an artwork that espouses the form of the archive to challenge the alleged objective nature of the documentary form and of the image-document as truthful archival material. Archives play an important role in how – and what – we learn about the past.

In the art world the concept of “the archive” has also proven to be an important trend. In recent years, there has been an increasing number of artists and critics dealing with historical memory, documents and archives. Art critic Hal Foster writes about an “archival impulse at work internationally in contemporary art” in which “archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present”. This work is archival “since it not only draws on informal archives but produces them as well”. For such artists the intervention in the archive is a “gesture of alternative knowledge or counter-memory”. Contemporary artists such as Douglas Gordon, Péter Forgács, Andrei Ujica and Harun Farocki are only some examples. It could easily be argued that Fontcuberta is one of these artists with an archival desire who produces counter-archives – although, I will argue, Fontcuberta is a case apart. Many “archival artists” adopt the form of an archive to re-collect and contradict official readings of an event. In his film archive Meanwhile Somewhere… 1940-1943 (1994)  Peter Forgács, for example, collects amateur videos and clandestine amateur shots as “evidence [of] private aspects of the war,” stating in an interview that he believes that amateur images and home movies of individuals are more “spontaneous” and “subconscious”. In their archival film Videograms of a Revolution (1993) Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica also use amateur and professional archival video footage to rework a view on the Romanian Revolution in December 1990.

Although they may vary in the perspective on a historical event, Fontcuberta – unlike these artists – does not have the illusion that amateur counter-archives are of a different quality than official ones; that they “stand against the monumental history of the state”. The distrust of official archives expressed by these artists in creating an oppositional counter-archive stands in contrast to Fontcuberta’s mistrust of all archives. Fontcuberta is well aware that “counter-archives” form an antithesis in an open-ended dialectical process that will never find its resolution in a final synthesis. It never finally reaches an absolute certainty, but can only posit ideas that cannot be fixed as truths. Instead, Sputnik forms a meta-archival approach that exposes and rejects the very logic of an archive as “the foundation of factual knowledge”. What is more, Fontcuberta utilizes “amateur images” as a deliberate strategy to give these images the credibility of pieces of evidence or documentation. Especially the family photos of Istochnikov [3, 4, 5] seem “spontaneous,” “authentic” and “innocent” due to their supposed lack of constructedness and their “home made” quality. These family photos seem all the more “real” since it is the trivial, the inconsequential and the personal that they seem to document. Fontcuberta is well aware that “the absence of ‘beauty’ yields a greater quotient of ‘truth’”.

“Photographs furnish evidence,” writes Susan Sontag, “something we hear about, no doubt, seems proven when shown a photograph of it”. This is indeed what happened not only to the unsuspecting visitors of Fontcuberta’s exhibition but also to the creators of Cuarto Milenio. However, what Sputnik proves is the continuous paradox that we do not necessarily believe something when we see it, as Sontag argues, rather it reveals that we see something when we believe it. The historical context of Soviet Russian practices of erasure and assumptions about Russia together with the archival form in which the information about Istochnikov is presented, make us believe there was a cosmonaut named Istochnikov who disappeared in space. Consequently, and without further ado, we see the photos as the evidence for his existence and erasure. Sputnik places the documentary as source material under suspicion. Photographic realism is revealed not as truth but as true belief.

Dialectical Photography

Sputnik demonstrates the coexistence of contradictions present in a documentary photographic image. It plays on the complex relationship between documentary as a representational mode of photography and photography as a document. What is more, Sputnik demonstrates the dialectical process at work in documentary photography. In calling photography dialectical I refer to it as the instable and changeable collision of two oppositional forces at work in an image that creates a new situation by mutual affect. The effect the Sputnik photographs have, then, is the result of a continuous reciprocity between two oppositions that influence each other

in a dialectical relation: Between the historical and the factual on the one hand and the fake and the fictive on the other, between historical referent and interpretation, between the inside and the outside of the frame; between fiction and non-fiction and art and document. The effect Sputnik has on the unsuspecting viewer shows the determined perception of photography as a passive thing, a passive recorder, and does this by means of demonstrating its active and constructed nature. The idea that photography provides us with an impartial and objective image of reality has been rejected by many critics in the last decades. As Sontag notes:

Photographs…cannot explain themselves anything. …Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph. …Photography can never be knowledge.

Sontag is correct, yet as Sputnik shows, photographs still are generally taken to be true documents of an exterior world. “[W]e cannot escape the pull of its…adhesion to the real”. The theoretical assumptions outlined above still haunt the meanings attested to photography. We have not freed photography from its documental value, nor have we freed ourselves from judging it as such. Photographs are and will be valued because they give information. The order of the information they give, however, is less about something “out there” in reality than it is about something at work in the image. With Sputnik Fontcuberta explores the factors that condition the veracity of information. Sputnik carries us deep through the realm of storytelling and fiction into the epistemological mechanisms that create certainty. This leads us to another dialectical quality of photography, the one between fiction and non-fiction.

The non-fiction genre is understood “as that what gives information and facts, as the narrative depiction of factual events as history, biography and reference works” (OED). It derives its meaning from a negative dialectic with fiction, as that other than fiction, as that in opposition to stories and novels. Non-fiction, then, forms the opposite of invention and imagination and is most commonly associated with academia. Fontcuberta uses the tools of fiction as a mode of representing the difficulties of the genre of non-fiction. Sputnik is not just a product of the imagination with no material presence. The documents presented are factual, scientific material combined with fake and fictive material and absorbed within a fictive narrative system. The systematic reciprocity between science and creativity, between fact and fiction, and between art and document at work in Sputnik proves that these classical dualisms need to be revised. Fontcuberta diminishes the distance between fiction and non-fiction. While we understand science as the discipline that analyzes the real, and art as a discipline which produces artificial things, Sputnik suggests that the historical archives which the science of history analyzes is an artifice produced by the science of history itself. All archival objective documents have a fictional quality. Just like in narrative, history organizes, forms and shapes happenings into a series of events and gives them meaning.

History as storytelling is seen as a means to understand a world without permanent certainties. Fiction is not the antonym of truth and facts are not opposed to belief. Instead, truth is exposed as belief. Another factor that conditions the effect of truthfulness is related to the problematical opposition between word and image. Now, let us turn to the photographs of the Sputnik archive once again. What happens when the texts and the captions accompanying the photographs are removed? Lacking any type of explanatory introduction or caption, the observer of these photographs would find in them “documentary” photographs of trivial happenings in the life of an unknown individual. What one is left with, due to the absence of any contextualization and narrativization, is the banality of different scenes out of the life of a stranger.

A partnership between the oppositional forces of word and image is needed in order to give photography its full (constructed) meaning. The Czechoslovakian philosopher Vilém Flusser elucidates this dialectical struggle between words and images when he states: “although texts explain images in order to explain them away, images in their turn illustrate texts in order to render their meaning imaginable”. Without contextualization and narrativization we are left with fragments of enunciations. This in contrast to the belief that images provide proof or certify something more than what is represented in their two-dimensionality.

The fragments of enunciation we are left with are the result of a complex process at work in the image. Flusser explains that while glancing over a photograph we grasp the different objects shown in the image following a path that is formed both by the composition of a photograph, “the structure of the image”, and by the intentions we have in observing the photograph. The information we obtain from this “scanning” is the result of the synthesis between the connotative symbol-complexes depicted and the frames of meaning the observer applies to these symbol-complexes. “Thus, images are not “denoting” [unambiguous] symbol-complexes…but “connoting” symbol-complexes” and offer room for various interpretations depending on the path of the “scanning” and the cultural frames of reference of the observer. Making it possible that the exact same image can obtain contradictory meanings. The observer establishes a meaningful relationship between the elements in the image. Images are “mediations between man and world”. I will come back to this later.

Photography has significance beyond the sum of its parts: what is outside of the frame contributes significantly to the constructed meaning of an image.

A Judas Kiss

Besides exposing the workings of photography within an archive, Sputnik exposes the workings of memory. By constructing a plausible lie, Sputnik calls attention to the possibility of false memory in the construction of history. In his essay “Photography” cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer warned of the destructive force of the photographic image in re-constructing historical memory. Fontcuberta, it can be argued, could be regarded as a contemporary response to Kracauer’s warnings. Images that we now consider fraudulent for treating real things in a creative way have been consumed in the same vein as press illustrations, and archival image-documents.

What remains of the veracity of photography as archival source material? Sputnik, it could be argued, gives an answer. The effect that the photographs have on the unsuspecting viewer demonstrates that, against all odds and against our best judgment, photography as an image-document still plays an important role as an index of the real, as truthful archival material. Fontcuberta weaves together notions of documentary photography and photography as archival source material in an artwork that challenges the naïve consensus of archival material as stable, truthful, valid and cogent pieces of non-fiction.

Photography as a historical document presented in the form of an archive makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is. It gives us the illusion of a real past we can get to. It gives us the illusion of the possibility of a relationship between an image and the real as past. However, “photographs interpose themselves between man and world”. They are meaningful traces on a surface, not windows. This is not to argue that they are manipulative pieces of fiction, but there is only so much they can reveal. With all photography we behold someone’s look at the world and not the world itself. As the American philosopher Stanley Cavell has aptly argued, “our philosophical grasp of the world fails to reach beyond our taking and holding views of it”. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin said that photographs look back at you. But what looks back at you in the photograph is the human consciousness that made it and saw it as significant.

This conclusion is, however, decades old. Since Kant we have known that there is no real we can get to: we do not have access to the “thing-in- itself”. Reality is always fractured and ungraspable. Sputnik’s message has been part of our intellectual register since the last century. Yet, Sputnik exposes something that forced me to work through the art work and draw this age-old conclusion once again. Something makes us persist in believing in the veracity of image-documents, which causes us to be fooled and take for objective what is subjective, to take for non-fiction what is in fact fiction. That “something” is the same age-old and persistent desire of seeing what we believe with which we fool ourselves. We see things that accord with our world view and neglect information that may contradict it. We ignore the fact that, when we would explore the photos in more detail, the people depicted in the photographs do not look Russian at all; they are in fact the Spanish friends and acquaintances of Fontcuberta. We neglect the fact that in photo [5] there is Western script on a taxi sign and on the restaurant sign, indicating that these photographs were not made in Russia. We see the photographs as the evidence of the erasure of Istochnikov when we believe that he could be erased, and because we believe photographs to be the evidence of historical events.

In the historical archive, the basis on which history is written, the consensus that there is an objective whole we can get to prevails. The effect Sputnik has derives partly from the enduring belief in the existence of an objective world within the archive. We are reminded again of the age-old but important Kantian question of Kritik der Reinen Vernunft: What can we know? Hereby implying that we cannot know everything. Although we know we cannot know everything, that we can not grasp the real, we do not act on this knowledge. Photography as archival material gives us the illusion that we can know everything. What remains of the veracity of photography as archival source material, is that the deceiving appearance of photography as truthful is kept up in the historical archive. It may be hard to live without a sense that there is a real we can know or get to, but we may find comfort in the words of the Italian painter Giorgio DeChirico: “Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est?”. ❉

Works Cited

Bruzzi, Stella. “The Event: Archive and Newsreel.” in: New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. London/New York: Routledge: 2000.

Cavell, Stanley. The World Viewed. Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Corner, John. The Art of Record: A Critical Introduction to Documentary. Manchester:  Manchester University Press, 1996.

Flusser, Vilém. “A Phiolisophy of Photography”. Kronoton Medya.                                                                        <>. 29 Dec. 2008.

Fontcuberta, Joan. El Beso de Judas. Fotografía y Verdad. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 1998.

Forgács, Péter. “Meanwhile Somewhere… 1940-1943. Un Unknown War Series 5/3.”Jan. 2009. <>.

Foster, Hal. “An Archival Impulse” October No. 110 (2004): 3-32 JSTOR.December 2008.

Hughes, Robert. “Giorgio DeChirico” in: Nothing if not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and                  Artists. Abstract. The Artchive. December 2008. n.p. < >.

Merewether, Charles. “Introduction. Art and the Archive.” in: Charles Merewether (Ed.) The Archive. Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel, 2006.

Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Digital Library. Library of the University of Amsterdam. 16 Jan. 2009. <>.

Sontag, Susan. “In Plato’s Cave.” in: On Photography. London: Penguin Books, 2002.

Walker, Ian. “Between Index and Construct.” in: Ian Walker. City Gorged with Dreams.                   Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Art Work Cited

Fontcuberta, Joan. Sputnik. 1997. Photographs, documents and text. MNAC. Museu Nacional                   d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.

Photographs Cited

Fontcuberta, Joan. El Libro de las Maravillas. Catálogo. Ayuntamiento de Barcelona & La                   Virreina Centre de la Imatge. Barcelona: Actar, 2008. Print