Is photography really that new?
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.”