I recently read an exhibition review that described the paintings and photographs on display as ‘old, conservative forms’. The reviewer lamented this particular exhibition’s reliance on these traditional pictorial methods, as opposed to something newer or more progressive. I couldn’t help but wonder what 19th-century pioneers of photographic art, such as Oscar Gustav Rejlander and Julia Margaret Cameron – who spent their careers battling the widely held belief that photography could never be anything but mechanical technology – would make of the notion that the medium is now considered a conventional art form. As photographic imagery currently provides the bulk of our online information and entertainment, the criticism that it is a conservative form is misplaced. In fairness, however, it is more likely that the reviewer’s complaint was not about photography per se, but more to do with the fact that the photographs in question were just pictures on a wall, rather than some more innovative format. In other words, it was the traditional ‘fine art’ treatment of the works that led to the perception of them as outmoded.
In addition to dressing up pictures in frames and hanging them on the wall, art-historical discourse and museum practice are both built upon a model that arranges artworks along a timeline, with a parade of styles and a canon of masterworks. If early photography was going to be accepted as art, it had to be assimilated into this structure: it had to be treated like a traditional art form in order to be seen as one.
This is the approach taken in a new three-volume set published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Referencing only works in the museum’s vast collection, Photography at MoMA charts the development of the medium from its beginnings in the mid-19th century to the present day. The series has been compiled and edited by curators in the museum’s photography department: Quentin Bajac, Lucy Gallun, Roxana Marcoci and Sarah Meister. The first two volumes, 1960–Now and 1920–1960, were issued respectively in 2015 and 2016, with the final volume, 1840–1920, just published. Each book is arranged in linear progression, with works grouped together in stylistic or thematic categories, such as ‘Pictorialism into Modernism’, ‘Surrealism and the Everyday’ and ‘The Archive’. Each thematic chapter is introduced by an essay – written by a mixture of in-house curators and authorities on photography such as Geoffrey Batchen and David Campany. The books include full-colour plates of iconic works like William Eggleston’s Untitled, Greenwood, Mississippi (1973), which depicts a single light bulb suspended from a bright red ceiling, as well as lesser-known images, such as Shirana Shahbazi’s prismatic abstraction, [Composition-45-2011] (2011). MoMA has been careful to avoid using the word ‘history’ in the title, but that’s essentially what this is. It works partly because the history of photography is so brief – less than 180 years – but also because the comprehensiveness of MoMA’s collection makes such a venture possible.
Photography was 100 years old when, in 1940, MoMA (itself then only 11 years old) dedicated an entire department to it. It is worth noting that Tate Modern, a similar institution, did not even have a curator dedicated to photography until Simon Baker was appointed in 2009. MoMA’s intention was not simply to exhibit photography from time to time but, rather, to build a permanent collection of important works by important makers, with significant aesthetic, cultural and social value. They were effectively taking a non-traditional pictorial form and giving it the traditional museum treatment, applying to photography a collection paradigm similar to those used for painting or sculpture. The books make clear how the terms of acquisition have varied over the years. Beaumont Newhall, the department’s first curator from 1940 to 1947, concentrated on ‘straight’ photography, acquiring works of formal and aesthetic excellence by recognized masters such as Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Paul Strand. His successor, the photographer Edward Steichen – who worked at MoMA from 1947 until 1962 – took a less elitist approach, focusing on talented newcomers, such as Harry Callahan and W. Eugene Smith. Steichen also favoured more varied styles and acquired examples from the worlds of mass-media and photojournalism. More recently, Peter Galassi (1991–2011) and Bajac, the current chief curator of photography, have added works by important Postmodern and contemporary figures – Walead Beshty, Andreas Gursky, Cindy Sherman and Carrie Mae Weems – and have fill gaps in the collection through acquiring works by Bauhaus artists, including Helmar Lerski, and Soviet Constructivists, such as El Lissitzky. These various approaches have resulted in an exceptionally comprehensive collection but, despite differing sensibilities, a central tenet has remained: the steadfast understanding of photography as a quintessentially progressive medium, with forms, styles and practices that shift constantly, not only in response to social and cultural developments but also to technological advancements.
Acknowledging photography’s progressive nature also means recognizing the roles it plays outside of art – in journalism, commerce and entertainment. Photography at MoMA treats these practical applications as movements, incorporating them into the timeline with more purely aesthetic or conceptual phases. These non-art practices are thereby absorbed into the wider photographic canon. They are even given their own lists of associated artists, although this is sometimes problematic. For instance, the familiar image taken during the 1969 moon landing, View of Astronaut Footprint in Lunar Soil (20 July 1969), is attributed not to a single photographer but to NASA; Photo Emerges After Khomeini’s Frenzied Funeral (1989) – which depicts the horrific moment when Ayatollah Khomeini’s body fell from its coffin – is similarly credited to the Associated Press. News images such as these highlight the extent to which photography, much more so than painting or sculpture, is understood and interpreted through its subject matter rather than through attribution. Attempts to frame it within a traditional art-historical model risk reducing the original use, context and broader social role of this kind of photography to a thematic movement, aestheticizing it and emphasizing stylistic developments and the authority of the artist. This has been a frequent criticism from those who view the integration of photographic practices into the fine art model as troublesome, in that the medium’s diverse forms are lumped into one generalized category: photography. Yet, this is not always a bad thing.
In its art-historical systemization, Photography at MoMA allows us to see various styles and practices not simply as different forms of photography unceremoniously fused, but rather as timely responses to each other. Within this framework, constructed narratives – such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s New York (1993), which features a motley collection of posed but seemingly oblivious pedestrians – demonstrate the camera’s capacity for deception. These images then become counterpoints to earlier street photography: Robert Frank’s series ‘The Americans’ (1955–57), for instance, which relied on the medium’s ability to expose uncomfortable truths.
Acknowledging photography’s progressive nature also means recognizing the roles it plays outside of art — in journalism, commerce and entertainment.
This structure also reveals patterns whereby societal or technological developments offer renewed relevance to older forms. The archive, for instance, is revisited time and again: from August Sander’s portrait series ‘Types and Figures of the City’ (1922–30), detailing the sociological classifications in German society, to Bernd and Hilla Becher’s ‘Water Towers’ (1963–93), which captures the architecture of industrialization, to ‘Analogue’ (1998–2009), Zoe Leonard’s colourful record of bodegas, storefront signs and other inner-city relics made obsolete by gentrification.
By consolidating photography’s various styles and practices into a unified linear development and assigning attribution, Photography at MoMA utilizes the traditional fine-art model, upon which the medium has often relied for acceptance as an art form. Criticisms that this all-inclusive approach disregards the necessary separations between art and non-art photography are not without merit, but, in showing how seemingly disparate practices – from pictorialism to photojournalism – influence, borrow from and even fight against each other, MoMA reveals the comprehensive nature of photography’s evolution. However, in order to be truly effective, this new series, like photography itself, must continue to evolve.
Today’s meme-ified popular imagery is perhaps the next phase in the evolution. Richard Prince’s ‘New Portraits’ series (2015), in which he appropriates Instagram posts, turning them into large-scale prints, is evidence of the influence viral, online imagery has already had on contemporary art photography; and, while we might cringe at the thought of ‘selfies’ and ‘food porn’ someday appearing in MoMA’s photographic collection, it is almost imperative that they do.
How will this viral imagery be slotted into future editions of Photography at MoMA? What are the masterworks? To whom will they be attributed? These are presumably the same questions that were asked when MoMA first added photojournalism and snapshots to its collection of fine, original prints. They will obviously have to be answered again because – despite being an ‘old, conservative’ medium – looking forward and adapting are photography’s lifeblood.
Main image: Julia Margaret Cameron, Cassiopeia, 1866, albumen silver print from glass negative
First published in Issue 6