Exhibiting the New Historiographies
Which history of photography is told in museums? We are familiar with the usual parade of nineteenth-century photography such as Linnaeus Tripe, Roger Fenton and Julia Margaret Cameron, and then that of the great masters of the modernist canon who repeatedly adorn our gallery walls in some shape or other. These of course have their interest and their merits and such exhibitions have done much to raise the public sense that ‘photography is important.’ But what of the social history of photography, the photography that worked within people’s lives – those millions of humble and unremarkable photographs which mattered to people and which constitute the majority of photographs?
In this blog post I want to look at the way in which the new historiographies of photography that privilege, for instance, social relations, materiality, dissemination and reproduction, are being articulated in museums and galleries. Because certainly there has been an upsurge in the number of exhibitions which focus primarily on neither the ‘art of photography’, nor on content alone (which has tended to be the fate of photographs outside the category of ‘fine photography’). These exhibitions explore instead photographs as social actors, material objects and multiple originals in which that very multiplicity, rather than the single precious object, has become the focus of displays.
This is not merely a change in fashion in exhibitions, but reflects the shifting categories and hierarchies of values which are increasingly reshaping how photographs are thought about by museums. For exhibitions and displays are in effect the last, but most visible, stage in the complex ecosystem of hierarchy, category, collection and non-collection which I have discussed in earlier posts in this series; and exhibitions are, of course, shaped by these historiographical processes. There are very few photographic exhibitions now, even those which take the ‘traditional row of fine photographs’ approach to display, which do not include the material performance or social and haptic relations of photographs, whether the publication in magazines or books of Paul Strand’s photographs or the intellectual circles of Julia Margaret Cameron, both recently at the V&A in London, while Shirley Baker’s documentary photographs of slum clearance in Manchester at the Photographers’ Gallery were accompanied by a specially commissioned soundscape. Photographs are now firmly in the category of ‘social objects’ operating in experiential networks of people and things.
But as I have discussed in previous posts, photographs have ambiguous status in museums, and this is reflected in the way they are put to work. Many, as I have noted in my first post, are ‘just there’ – transparent, effectively invisible ‘non-collection’ supports for other objects and narratives in which photographs are not articulated as being historical in and of themselves. Thus photographs in museums have multiple and contradictory status and functions balanced uneasily between art and information. They work within the gallery space across several modes – as design solution, as art work, as information, as specimen. All these functions are, given that photography is a medium of both communication and reproducibility, arguably perfectly legitimate – it is not a pure form. But there has to be clarity in how the photographs are functioning at a given moment within the epistemological frameworks of the museum. What kind of knowledge are they producing and how? The Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin for instance handles this well in my view. Addressing the multiple didactic and aesthetic expectations that audiences have of photographs, there is clear energy yet differentiation to the strands: they could not be confused with one another. Marc Weis and Martin de Mattia’s large lenticular-effect installations (Was von damals übrig bleibt 1–2 / What is left over from back then 1–2) set the tone with the shifting visions of history as the visitor walks up the stairs. In the galleries photographs are used as information and as design solutions, setting up the ‘economy of truth’ and the ‘feel of the past’ respectively within the didactic narrative. But they are also used as historical objects, such as photographs of facial injury in the First World War and, importantly, presented through historical modes of seeing. This is particularly so the case with stereos where the visitor can see the images, filling their whole field of vision as would have been the case for early twentieth-century viewers.
This latter strand is important and is integrally tied up with the ‘material turn’ in photographic historiography. Interestingly, in 2004 Glenn Willumson argued that the stereo had been marginalised in photographic histories not only because of its commercial nature and aesthetic limits but also because its 3D demands did not fit the practices and styles of gallery display – precious matted and framed objects on the wall. 1 Glenn Willumson, “Making Meaning: Displaced Materiality in the Library and Art Museum”, in Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, ed. Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart (London: Routledge, 2004), 62–71.However, since that piece was written there has been an upsurge in the numbers of exhibitions of all kinds which engage with aspects of ‘historical seeing’. An example is Tate Britain’s The Poor Man’s Picture Gallery (2014/15) which looked at stereo cards which re-enacted scenes for great paintings to make them come alive for mass audiences in the mid-nineteenth century, while other exhibitions used the material form and presence of the original to extend beyond the gallery wall in the traditional sense, for example Susan Meiselas: In History (2008/9) and The Mexican Suitcase (2010/11), both at ICP New York.
This is related in turn to an increasing sense of historical vision within exhibitions, reconstructing the conditions under which photographs were, and indeed continue to be, consumed as social and cultural objects. Drawn by Light (2015) at the Science Museum, London, showed material drawn from the collections of the Royal Photographic Society. In the central room, the long wall reconstituted a ‘salon’ hang of the 1880s. Different styles and sizes of photographs filled the space in close juxtaposition in a way entirely alien to the spacious and singular hanging of photographs we are accustomed to see in galleries today. It entirely changes the scale and pattern of seeing and style and scale of display, of course, and has a profound influence on the effective work of photographs in the museum space. 2 Olivier Lugon, “Photography and Scale”, Art History 38, 2 (2015), 286–403. Thus the ‘material turn’ has instigated the increasing exhibition focus on photographs as objects within specific spaces of human/object relations.
Related is an articulation of the scale of photographic production, demonstrating that photography is not about singularity but multiplicity and seriality and above all a sense of the embodied viewer. This massing of images and their affective tone was well demonstrated at the National Museum of Scotland’s Victorian Sensation in 2015 or Ulster Museum’s much smaller exhibition in their ‘Window in History’ temporary gallery, which also in 2015 explored local photography. These exhibitions were not about what photographs are ‘of’ – either in terms of document or aesthetic practice – but what they ‘do’ socially and culturally: Why they look as they do, what was done with them, how and why. It did so, again, by engaging visitors with technologies of seeing, but also through a massing of material suggesting the scale of photographic circulation and its cultural impact. In gallery terms there is a perceived problem that many majority photographic forms are small, and seldom visually or materially arresting. But in these exhibitions, and others I have seen recently, the saturating values of photography were communicated by the massing of objects – of cartes de visite, stereo cards, postcards – in huge wall-mounted vitrines. This sense of mass was stressed by the emphasis on the reproduction of images across formats – photographic prints, lantern slides and publications. Here, as is increasingly the case, photography is not presented as a pure form but as a site of translation, transformation and social engagement within a wider visual culture.
Interestingly, many of these explorations of material and practice also address the ways photographs have been collected and their relationship with institutional histories and practices. Only last week I saw a wonderful exhibition, Inquéritos ao Território: Paisagem e Povoamento at the National Museum of Ethnology in Lisbon which explored the way photography had been used to survey and collect Portuguese ‘peasant’ culture. 3 A downloadable guide to the exhibition can be found here.Its epistemic role in institutional and disciplinary knowledge construction was clear. Photographs that I termed in an earlier post being ‘non-collections’ were shown as integral to cultural history and suggested new registers of photographic ‘importance’.
The significance of the practices and exhibitions I have noted, and there are many others, is that they reflect the historiographical changes in thinking about photography. Crucially as such they extend the concept of ‘historically important photographs’ for the public. At one level this is part of a much wider discussion about the practices of institutionalisation and the work of the ‘museum effect’. But there has been remarkably little address to the complexities of photographs within these processes. They are in many cases ‘just there’ as I noted in my first post. However, the inexorable rise in popular histories across all media is part of a historiographical shift, encouraging a different conception of what ‘important’ or ‘significant’ photography might be. Perhaps they are becoming no longer ‘just there’ but definitively and decidedly ‘here’.