Is pho­tog­ra­phy re­ally that new?

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PHILIP KEN­NI­COTT

It seems odd for a medium that is more than a cen­tury and a half old, but pho­tog­ra­phy is still cel­e­brat­ing its new­ness.

Three ex­hi­bi­tions in Washington re­call how re­cently ma­jor mu­se­ums got into the busi­ness of se­ri­ously col­lect­ing, study­ing and dis­play­ing the pho­tographed im­age: “Amer­i­can Mo­ments” at the Phillips Col­lec­tion is billed as the first ex­hi­bi­tion to draw ex­clu­sively on the mu­seum’s pho­to­graphic hold­ings, while “In the Light of the Past” and “The Mem­ory of Time” at the Na­tional Gallery of Art are mounted on the 25th an­niver­sary of the for­ma­tion of the mu­seum’s pho­tog­ra­phy depart­ment in 1990.

The two in­sti­tu­tions, not sur­pris­ingly, have dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to the sub­ject. The Na­tional Gallery’s vastly greater fi­nan­cial power has al­lowed it to col­lect syn­op­ti­cally, and the first of the ex­hi­bi­tions — “In the Light of the Past” — is es­sen­tially a primer in the history of the medium, from early im­ages cap­tured in the 1840s through the age of the da­guerreo­type, the ex­per­i­ments of the “Photo-Se­ces­sion” and other avant garde move­ments, the use of pho­tog­ra­phy for science and ex­plo­ration, into the great age of post-World War II doc­u­men­tary and so­cial is­sues pho­tog­ra­phy. The Phillips Col­lec­tion re­veals a dif­fer­ent, quirkier strat­egy, with a fo­cus on a core group of pho­tog­ra­phers, in­clud­ing Es­ther Bub­ley, Louis Fau­rer, Bruce David­son and Al­fred Eisen­staedt, who doc­u­mented Amer­i­can life and man­ners in the mid­dle of the last cen­tury. The third ex­hi­bi­tion, the Na­tional Gallery’s “The Mem­ory of Time,” fo­cuses on re­cent ac­qui­si­tions and the range of pho­tog­ra­phy since the early 1990s.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of these shows is es­sen­tially this: The Na­tional Gallery is full of trea­sures while the Phillips Col­lec­tion is about dis­cov­er­ies.

Among the Phillips dis­cov­er­ies is the work of Clarence John Laugh­lin, who made the first pho­to­graphs to en­ter into the Phillips Col­lec­tion. Like other pro­gres­sive-minded art lovers of his time, the mu­seum’s founder, Dun­can Phillips, was im­pressed with the ef­forts of Al­fred Stieglitz to de­fine pho­tog­ra­phy as an in­de­pen­dent art form, al­lied with the mod­ernist sen­si­bil­ity and ca­pa­ble not just of rep­re­sent­ing the world faith­fully, but also of ex­press­ing the in­di­vid­ual artist’s per­son­al­ity and vis­ual sense. Phillips ob­vi­ously be­lieved that Laugh­lin, who was born in Louisiana and made sur­re­al­ist im­ages that de­picted the South with a haunting sense of vis­ual po­etry, met the Stieglitz stan­dard. Phillips gave the of­ten dif­fi­cult pho­tog­ra­pher an ex­hi­bi­tion in 1943, yet Laugh­lin re­mains a rel­a­tively ob­scure name.

In “Black and White No. 2,” the pho­tog­ra­pher chooses a de­lib­er­ately ab­stract sound­ing ti­tle for a pho­to­graph that re­solves it­self as a pointed com­men­tary on the history of race. An African Amer­i­can woman is seen stand­ing in a win­dow of a rugged cabin, or hut, wear­ing a print dress with a bold pat­tern of light and dark on the fab­ric. The boards of the hut and its open win­dow shut­ter cre­ate a pow­er­ful, geo­met­ric grid, yet the woman’s strong pres­ence over­whelms the sense of math­e­mat­i­cal or­der. A chain hang­ing on the hut casts a shadow, just as slav­ery still casts a shadow to­day. Or­der, con­tain­ment, history and the as­sertive pres­ence of an anony­mous fig­ure who re­fuses to leave her sen­tinel’s post make this im­age ex­traor­di­nar­ily pow­er­ful.

The work of Bub­ley also will be, for many visi­tors, a happy dis­cov­ery at the Phillips Col­lec­tion. Bub­ley was a pho­to­jour­nal­ist, steeped in the so­cially con­scious doc­u­men­tary tra­di­tion of the New Deal era. In the 1940s, she worked for Stan­dard Oil Co. of New Jersey on a mas­sive, pri­vately funded pho­to­graphic sur­vey. Per­haps work­ing for in­dus­try in­formed the wry, sub­tle style of her work. In any case, Bub­ley’s im­ages are con­sis­tently well com­posed, cool, but pow­er­ful, and al­ways open to the ac­ci­den­tal or the serendip­i­tous.

Taken to­gether, the two ex­hi­bi­tions at the Na­tional Gallery seem to chart the birth, ef­flo­res­cence and (strangely enough) death of the form. Per­haps the most strik­ing cu­ra­to­rial choice is an al­most re­lent­less fo­cus on de­cay, death and dis­so­lu­tion in the last rooms of the con­tem­po­rary ac­qui­si­tions show.

But they come af­ter some re­mark­able mo­ments in the his­tor­i­cal over­view. Wil­liam Henry Fox Tal­bot’s “A Scene in York,” from 1845, is a del­i­cate em­a­na­tion from the ear­li­est pe­riod of pho­tog­ra­phy, a street view with the fa­mous York Min­ster Cathe­dral ris­ing in the back­ground. Tal­bot was a pi­o­neer and evan­ge­list of the medium, and this im­age is de­signed not only to frame a well-known ar­chi­tec­tural land­mark, but also to as­so­ciate the new art with its ar­chi­tec­tural per­ma­nency. Another early work, Roger Fenton’s 1860 still life “Fruit and Flow­ers” shows the po­ten­tial of the form only 15 years later, now reg­is­ter­ing tex­ture and de­tail, plays of light and re­flec­tion, and a much wider range of tones. Again, the as­so­ci­a­tion with some­thing tem­po­ral seems to be in play. If Tal­bot equated the new medium with the per­ma­nence of ex­ist­ing hu­man cre­ations, Fenton con­nects it not just to the es­tab­lished form of still life, but to com­pli­cated ideas about the ephemeral, the mor­tal and the power of the im­age to pre­serve time.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is equally strong in the French pioneers, in­clud­ing im­ages by Gus­tave Le Gray, Charles Ne­gre and Charles Marville (sub­ject of a re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion). The land­scape pho­tog­ra­phers of Amer­ica are in­cluded as well, with rep­re­sen­ta­tive pho­to­graphs by Car­leton Watkins, and Ead­weard Muy­bridge, a pho­tog­ra­pher of an­i­mals in mo­tion, rep­re­sented by a col­lo­type for­merly in the Cor­co­ran Col­lec­tion. Twen­ti­eth-cen­tury high­lights in­clude the ex­per­i­men­tal work of Paul Strand, An­dré Kertész and Ilse Bing, and the ex­hi­bi­tion builds to an over­view of the mid­cen­tury with work by Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Harry Cal­la­han, Irv­ing Penn and Diane Ar­bus.

It’s all nicely me­thod­i­cal and com­pre­hen­sive.

The sec­ond Na­tional Gallery show, fo­cused on the last quar­ter cen­tury, is more in­ter­est­ing, and cu­ri­ous. Or­ga­nized into five chap­ters, “The Mem­ory of Time” ex­plores the ex­is­ten­tial tur­moil un­leashed by dig­i­tal im­agery, the near-ubiq­ui­tous spread of pho­tog­ra­phy, the ease with which im­ages can be edited or fab­ri­cated and all the in­tel­lec­tual py­rotech­nics the new age of the fluid im­age has inspired. Beauty and so­cial pas­sion give way to provo­ca­tion and phi­los­o­phy. And so the work tends to be some­times larger, or made in se­ries, or based on novel

tech­niques (some of them self-de­struc­tive to the im­age it­self ), or oth­er­wise grounded in a con­cep­tual twist.

Mikhael Subotzky and Pa­trick Waterhouse, both born in 1981, pho­tographed doors in a sky­scraper in Johannesburg. Ini­tially a whites-only build­ing, the Pont City was only partly in­hab­ited, and much ne­glected, when the duo pho­tographed it from 2008-2010. The re­sult­ing im­age is a grid, mim­ick­ing the ver­ti­cal height of the struc­ture, show­ing mainly closed doors, with the oc­ca­sional glimpse into still-oc­cu­pied apart­ments. The ef­fect is un­canny, and deeply sad, and not so dif­fer­ent in a very dif­fer­ent way than the in­ter­play of a grid and a hu­man life in the Phillips Col­lec­tion pho­to­graph by Laugh­lin.

Other chap­ters look at im­ages made by play­ing with the ex­po­sure of time, in­clud­ing clas­sic drive-in movie theater pho­to­graphs by Sugi­moto; another chap­ter is de­voted to the role of mem­ory and the archive, with a dev­as­tat­ing im­age by Binh Danh that con­verts a Kh­mer Rouge prison por­trait into a da­guerreo­type, and in the process painfully hu­man­izes a young man about to be ex­e­cuted; and a room de­voted to “Fram­ing Time and Place” in­cludes works that speak to the evo­lu­tion of places and en­vi­ron­ments and the role the pho­to­graph can play in chart­ing or fix­ing the mo­ments of that evo­lu­tion.

That chap­ter is not par­tic­u­larly well distin­guished from the last one, “Con­tem­po­rary Ru­ins,” and thus the whole ex­hi­bi­tion op­er­ates un­der the shadow of this pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with de­cay and de­struc­tion. These are pow­er­ful im­ages, of places that man has ru­ined, or al­lowed to fall into ruin, some­times sug­gest­ing raw vi­o­lence, more of­ten hint­ing at ma­lign ne­glect.

It’s a pes­simistic way to end a cel­e­bra­tion of a quar­ter cen­tury of pho­tog­ra­phy col­lect­ing. One won­ders whether that pes­simism has some­thing to do with the ma­jor in­tel­lec­tual ar­gu­ment about the show, which is grow­ing a lit­tle stale. “The ad­vent of dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy has shat­tered en­dur­ing no­tions of the medium as a faith­ful wit­ness and recorder of un­bi­ased truths,” says cu­ra­tor Sarah Gree­nough. But those truths were shat­tered a long time ago, and well be­fore dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy, which merely pul­ver­ized what was al­ready bro­ken and crushed.

The ex­hi­bi­tion leaves one pin­ing, in fact, for a newage of se­ri­ous so­cial doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy, for artists who will go be­yond the con­cep­tual and the games of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the pes­simism of ru­ins, and use pho­tog­ra­phy (as so many of the pho­tog­ra­phers in the Phillips Col­lec­tion did) to ex­pose so­cial in­jus­tice, the depre­da­tions of the cur­rent fi­nan­cial regime and the lin­ger­ing facts of poverty, racism and other so­cial ills. That work was never fin­ished.

But in fact, it does con­tinue, although it isn’t well rep­re­sented in ex­hi­bi­tions such as this one. And that’s what makes the ex­hi­bi­tion’s ar­gu­ment (“Pho­tog­ra­phy, once un­der­stood as ver­i­fy­ing spe­cific facts ... is now rec­og­nized to have a mul­ti­fac­eted and slip­pery re­la­tion­ship to the truth”) seem at best dull, and prob­a­bly naïve.

The fun­da­men­tal truth about pho­tog­ra­phy to­day is that power wants us to dis­be­lieve it. Power ben­e­fits from our skep­ti­cism. The sub­tle, so­phis­ti­cated, worldly games with truth on dis­play here play into the regime of au­thor­ity, which de­mands that we no longer be­lieve what we see. Did a cop just fa­tally shoot an African Amer­i­can teenager on cam­era? No, says au­thor­ity, there must be some con­text, some other mean­ing. Did they just sur­round a man on the street, throw him to the ground and squash the life out of him? No, says au­thor­ity, your eyes de­ceive you.

Of course, power can ma­nip­u­late im­ages for pro­pa­ganda pur­poses just as power has al­ways ma­nip­u­lated im­ages. But the chal­lenge pre­sented to­day by pho­tog­ra­phy is not our in­her­ent credulity to the im­age but our in­her­ent def­er­ence to those in power who find the truth of im­ages in­con­ve­nient.

That’s our new age. Per­haps some­day ev­i­dence of it will show up in a pho­tog­ra­phy ex­hi­bi­tion some­where.


Wil­liam Henry Fox Tal­bot’s “A Scene in York,” from 1845, is a del­i­cate im­age from the ear­li­est pe­riod of pho­tog­ra­phy. Tal­bot was a pi­o­neer of the medium, and this im­age is de­signed not only to frame a land­mark, but to as­so­ciate the new art with its ar­chi­tec­tural per­ma­nency.


ABOVE: Clarence John Laugh­lin’s “Black and White No. 2” ap­plies a de­lib­er­ately ab­stract sound­ing ti­tle to a pho­to­graph that re­solves it­self as a pointed com­men­tary on the history of race.


ABOVE LEFT: Al­fred Stieglitz de­fined pho­tog­ra­phy as an in­de­pen­dent art form, as is shown in his 1926 work “Equiv­a­lent.”

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