All of Ray Johnson’s photos from Pink House sit in a defunct steam shower (don’t worry, they’re safe) on 34 East 69th. And his bunny-fied objects huddle around the decorative marble fireplace, too. Some 26 binders, a charming silver Photo Galaxy Album (Patent No. 4,530,176), and all their contents cataloged with question marks. One whole wall of the cool and dark steam shower devoted to photographic evidence that Ray Johnson, may he rest in kaleidoscopic peace, still thwarts every attempt at categorization.
And yet, as Assistant Archivist at the Ray Johnson Estate, I was tasked with devising a new, user-friendly organizational system for the photo collection. Not for Ray himself, but for the Ray Johnson Fan Club left in his wake. I quickly realized that I couldn’t be Bill Wilson, and shape this archive as an aesthetic and conceptual homage, fit with all the trappings of a riddle slash collage. Instead, I could communicate my reverence for Ray through the thoughtful preservation of his photographic legacy. To archive something is to assert its value within some greater historical narrative.
The collection is now separated into these discrete sections:
Slides, Color Transparencies, Oversized, RJ Pre-Black Mountain and Family Photos, Portraits of Ray Johnson (Known Photographers), Portraits of Ray Johnson (Unknown Photographers), Other People (Known), Other People (Unknown), Source Material, Pink House, Memorial Show, Exhibitions, Performances ca. 1960-1986, Works, and 90s Photos
The challenge was, and still is, to clot the inevitable bleed that runs between categories. All of these photographs could be considered “source material,” as well as “personal.” And Ray was a fan of chopping and re-constituting collages, so their dates are by no means singular. For some say Ray Johnson’s life was one big performance that ended with a splash. And one part of this elaborate performance entailed putting things where they didn’t belong… Which is subjective (the un-belonging and belonging alike).
This photo collection is an invaluable primary source. It propels outwards, and much like Ray Johnson himself, forms a nebulous web of connections. In any condition, it has the capacity to foster meaningful scholarship. My methodology for restructuring the collection was not explicitly to detangle this web, but rather to provide it with a scaffolding of sorts. Functionally, the archive layout should highlight those existing connections and facilitate the formation of new ones.
That being said, on some level this entire design was mediated through my desire to stay faithful to Ray. His modest, yet impenetrable logic. His defiance of accepted systems, performed as an elaborately choreographed bureaucracy. I felt most connected to him when investigating something I knew was ultimately inscrutable, my own little bureaucratic ritual. And those are the images that remain etched in my mind.
On behalf of the Ray Johnson Estate, we invite scholars and interested parties alike to explore this newly re-housed photo collection and enjoy its many facets.