I write in a five-year journal every day. It’s one of those diaries where each day of the year is given a page, and each day/page is divided into five sections. You have a very small amount of space to write about the big long day. The five-year journal holds you to the constraints of habit, space, and time at once. This is why it is both delightful and horrible.
I just lied to you. I don’t write in my five-year journal every day. Sometimes I stay out late or my body hurts or I am simply without the will to write something. Maybe I lack rigor, which is fine with me. Sometimes I’m out late or I literally cannot. About half the time, I go five days to a week without writing an entry and then play catch up by looking at my Google calendar to see who I saw, what I did, where I went. Otherwise, when I am more committed, I write about the weather, how it makes me feel physically and psychically. I often document what birds or animals I’ve seen or heard. The five-year journal is summary, almanac, health log, and mood board. Like any document, it is shaped by the limits of its own form and the flux of life. It can never be a comprehensive reflection of my life; it is only ever partial.
Thursday, August 29 at 3 p.m. I walk down Nicollet Mall, musing about this potential project: There are bright yellow and blue chairs scattered sparsely about. Hardly anybody is sitting in them; it’s a beautiful day—70 degrees, sunny. There are a couple of other people at the farmer’s market buying vegetables and flowers alongside me—there’s Muzak being piped in and it’s terrible. I see two pigeons on the sidewalk, hear a crow cawing in a parking ramp.
These are minutiae for the moment, but perhaps by the end of five years this ongoing document will reveal new and menacing things about my body and the climate. I am fixated by the difficulty in describing what a day felt like, in relaying a feeling to a nebulous future reader in general, even if that future reader is just myself. I am vexed by the five-year journal because there is so much that I do not write down, so much that might be more or less indicative of how my day actually was. The limits of the document and the archive tell us something important about our priorities and values, as well as what our priorities or values are not. Sometimes documents are discarded or unincorporated, floating in storage.
When I initially emailed the Hosmer Special Collections, they sent the Nicollet Mall Collection finding aid my way, along with a link to Hennepin County Library’s Digital Collections, suggesting I look at the City of Minneapolis Collection and the Department of Community Planning and Economic Development Collection. I fixate on the photos with people in them. There are photos of crowds gathering, people eating outside at Brit’s Pub, construction of multiple iterations of the mall, and a few choice candid shots of people. I feel a disconnect between my multisensory experience of the mall and the two-dimensionality of these photos (maybe my expectations were too high). I am skeptical of what the curation of these images is supposed to say about Nicollet Mall, who occupied it and how.
"Construction on Nicollet Mall," 1960s.
"Bicyclists on Nicollet Mall in Front of the Minneapolis Public Library," 1974.
"Crowds on Nicollet Mall During the Aquatennial," 1974.
"Commuters Boarding a Bus on Nicollet Mall," 1974.
"Nicollet Mall," 1995.
I paused on this photo featuring a woman reading while two women walk in opposite directions behind her, while two more women open doors to Dayton’s in the background.
"Bench in Front of Dayton's on Nicollet Mall," 1969.
I read this image as full of motions of a bygone era: shopping downtown, holding a door open to Dayton’s. I also read the actions of people in this photo in relation to actions or people who are not legible in the frame—people working inside Dayton’s or adjacent establishments, people who have not yet arrived or have just left or are leaving the space, people who weren’t able to access this space at all. These photos only tell us about the movements the frame allows. The movements performed in the archive are all decisively public, outdoors, in daylight, and in seemingly good weather.
I lingered on a particularly staged image, “Young Woman Posed Among the Flower Planters on Nicollet Mall.” I wonder why this is here, who decided this was important enough to include. What did the entities behind the camera want to say?
"Young Woman Posed Among the Flower Planters on Nicollet Mall," 1969.
For this and all the above images, the City of Minneapolis is the donating entity. I suspect that the photos were all commissioned by the city, since most of them are filed in the Department of Community Planning and Economic Development Collection. The actions in these photos speak to the movement of these people in those moments, but also to a broader choreography that the archive seeks or happens to curate, all based on what is available for the archivist and what they choose to digitize.
I keep thinking about Sontag’s thought that “all photographs are memento mori,” that “precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” As one who peruses these photos, I am a tourist within the photographer’s lens as well as this vision of Minneapolis these images compound, one that will never capture a truly dynamic choreography of the past.
All images courtesy of Hennepin County Library. Click each photo to learn more.