© Alison Nordström, 2019
Objects, Images, Audiences.
Photographs and museums have a lengthy history in which I have happily played a minor role for close to 40 years. In that time, both fields have seen remarkable changes in technology, education, and philosophy, though we should note, as Marshall McLuhan reminds us, that technology often moves faster than the ideas and practices of the culture in which the technological change has occurred. Thus, I will argue, we must consider past ways of making, using, and understanding photographs if we are to fully understand the worlds we find ourselves in now. In this essay, I want to consider the materiality of photographs, especially when they are situated in museums. I will think historically about the idea of photographic art and how that idea has related to photography’s much larger world.
My formative photographic experience was in a museum archive. In the basement of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Ethnology and Archaeology, I was introduced to mysterious pencil-marked boards with albumen prints glued onto them, crumbling scrapbooks of photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, and boxes of loose prints fetched from dusty shelves. I don’t know whether this is what engendered my interest in photographic materiality, or whether that interest was what made me experience the things in the archive as multivalent sources of knowledge and delight. I know that the seminal photographic engagements of many other people were not with things, but with images in a book, or with the front surface of a fine print, sealed, framed, glassed and isolated on a wall in a white cube. Today, of course, most photographic images are consumed on a screen, where they are all the same size and are moved through with the quick twitch of a finger, but for me, the photographs that would shape my career were complex physical objects with fronts and backs, dog-eared, numbered, and written-on, stored with huge numbers of similar things, organised by the place of their making in a science museum collection. There is a distinctive smell to such things, and a heft and feel that connected my senses and my intellect.
Today, in the heady early years of the digital turn, I want to emphasise the difference between image and object. When people first experienced the photograph it was as a thing. It was a piece of metal or paper and it was impossible to separate the thing from the image it carried. What’s important to remember about the way photographs were is that their material nature affected what people did with them, and what people do with a photograph is what establishes its particular meaning. Part of the way we have lived with photographs is as things that we kiss, things we burn in protest, things we rip up in anger, things we write on, things we fold in half so that they fit into an envelope, things we put in albums, or in frames on a gallery wall. These actions are part of the material culture of these objects. Things can live longer than we do. Most of the photographs that were made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have not survived, but the ones that have possess a particular importance simply because they are still here. Many of them show the marks of their use in ways that may give us a clue as to what they meant to the people who handled them in the past.
Often when we think about photographic materiality, we are thinking about vernacular photographs like family albums, snapshots, and postcards, but the materiality of photographs is also critical to how art photographs have been used and understood.
Pictorialism, for example, is not just the first international photographic art movement; it’s the first truly international art movement of any kind. I’m quite certain that one of the reasons for this is that it was easy to make multiple photographs, put them in envelopes, and mail them off to salons and exhibitions in Australia, Paris or Yokohama. Compare this to paintings, which were both one of a kind and difficult to transport. Thus, the ease with which photographs move around, which is inherent to their materiality, has very much shaped the way we have seen and used them.
Today photographs can travel instantly as digital files, but what travels is the image, not the object. Digital metadata notwithstanding, material objects accrue the marks of their use in different and particular ways. Part of what we can learn from those marks is how objects have moved, what theorists of material culture call its trajectory. We ask: How did this thing get from where it was made to where I found it? With paper photographs, the back is conveniently inseparable from the front of the object that carries the image, so that the back becomes an intuitive vehicle for carrying the artist’s name, writing a caption, or adding a date. Twentieth century newspaper photographs may carry the entire history of their publication in rubber stamps and paper cutlines on the back. With an image that is moving around digitally, such information doesn’t accrue in this way but is replaced with each use. The reproducibility of photographs and the ease with which they are moved around are key elements for both digital and analogue images, but I don’t think they’re the same thing.
From a theoretical standpoint, a photograph entering a collection becomes one more example of photographic use, but when this happens it’s usually terminal.
Photographs are slippery because they can be used (and thus understood) in multiple ways, and those uses can change over time, as a photograph moves from hand to hand, and place to place. A photograph made as a family aide-memoire may enter an ethnographic collection and become permanently fixed as ‘Fijian Chief’ even though it wasn't made with scientific intent. A Matthew Brady Studio photograph, which might have been photojournalism when it was first seen, enters the collection of an art museum and it becomes art. It enters the collection of a history museum and it becomes history. The multivalent possibilities of most photographic images and objects are not necessarily related to their materiality, but that materiality is often part of the context we need in order to understand their meaning. It is almost always useful to interrogate a photograph as a thing situated in a place, whether that place is an archive, a gallery, a bureau drawer or a hard drive, and to recognise that the place where we find (or put) a thing is one of the elements that will control its meaning.
Even now, post-digital turn, we're stuck with the memory of photographic materiality as a defining factor that instructs us in how images should be understood, kept, and organised.
Museums are literally conservative institutions—they keep things—and museums are in the business of keeping track of the stuff they keep. The easiest way of keeping track of stuff is to put numbers on it and while this can be done with a digital file, there is much greater risk of the number getting separated from its thing. And if a material photograph is slippery, its digital counterpart is even more so. Born digital works may raise intriguing issues about originality, authenticity and authorship that strike at the very heart of what museums have done for centuries, so we find that museums, art museums in particular, are still feeling their way with how to handle born digital works of art.
At least for awhile longer, most museums are still buildings, and most exhibitions are still about putting things into the rooms of the building, so that people will move their bodies around in those rooms, in some physical relationship to the things in them. In the future, of course, it may be common to go online for experiences that feel somewhat like exhibitions. It may be possible to send visual experiences directly to the chip implanted in your brain. It's very hard to speculate. I do believe that regardless of what happens in the future, these not-material experiences will be in addition to what we do now, not a replacement. Approaching a huge Rubens painting, walking around and seeing it in a room, will never be the same as looking at an image of it on a screen and, of course, it has always been intended to be known as a thing in a room. In the future, artists will make work that can reach their audiences in ways we can’t imagine, and we may eventually bypass materiality in a particular work entirely, but I doubt that we will ever give up the material, whether it’s a photograph or a diamond. Our world is made of things.
There is a particular confusion with photographs. If I take a photograph of a Louis XIV chair and show it to you, whether I show it to you on a screen or on a piece of paper, you're probably not going to confuse that photograph with a chair. You’re not going to try and sit down on that photograph. But if I show you a photograph of a photograph, it looks like a photograph. And if I show you a photograph on a screen you may very well confuse that image with the actual paper photograph that served as the source of a scan. There is also the element of ubiquity. We are surrounded by photographs. The number of photographs that I see every day is probably more than someone would have seen in an entire lifetime in the nineteenth century. Surely, that too affects the ways we understand photographs today.
Thus, for artists, as well as their audiences, we need to think about adding new possibilities—new arrows in the quiver—rather than replacing them. The institutions that specialise in teaching so-called “alternative process” have long taught daguerreotype, cyanotype and platinum printing. Today they are also teaching gelatin silver printing as the archaic process that it has become, but it’s still alive, and available for artistic expression. Artists are always looking for the right medium to express their ideas. Sally Mann’s wet collodion and Chuck Close’s daguerreotypes allow the artists to make photographs that look and feel the way they want them to. The digital turn offers a parallel universe rather than one thing superseding the other. It’s such an exciting time to be making and looking at photographic art! Today we see artists happily using an iPhone to make digital video for online consumption, while also realising ideas that require darkroom-made contact prints.
In the non-art world, things are changing very fast too, and collectors and exhibitors of photographs should take note of this. When I was most recently in charge of a museum collection, we collected passports and identity cards because it seemed that the notion that you could prove who you were by showing someone a photograph of your face was an old use of photography that would soon be over, now that we have retinal scans and genetic coding. We felt that a cultural change of that magnitude would be reflected in the contemporary art that also interested us, and we wanted our collection to serve both as historical document and artists’ resource. In the art world, we need all the material we've got; we need to preserve and consider every possibility and see how artists and others sort it out.
In photography, the distinction between art and non-art is very often an artificial one.
A lot of historical material was undertaken for practical reasons and became art much later. In the 1870s, Timothy O'Sullivan photographed the American West to help surveyors keep track of what they were measuring. They were useful photographs on many levels, used by politicians to claim new territory, and at Harvard to teach geology to undergraduates. By the mid twentieth century, Ansel Adams used these pictures to validate the kind of art that he championed. By the time they were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, some 100 years after their making, they had become art. Now that photographs are so very much part of the art market, there is an economic motive to claiming the status of art for images made with a non-art intention. Press photographs, family snapshots, advertising, and 19th century souvenirs, had rich lives as part of popular culture before they were collected, exhibited and interpreted by art museums. There was undoubtedly an appreciation of their aesthetic, but the result was also an increase in their monetary value.
The arbitrary distinction between art and not art has been going on for a long time. Stieglitz took a walk back through nineteenth century photography looking for spiritual ancestors, and, because of his pictorialist position, the pictures he identified as the art of the nineteenth century were the allegorical, out of focus images by David Octavius Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron. A generation later, Beaumont Newhall, with the very different agenda of justifying photography as a modernist art, took the same walk through the nineteenth century and identified very different photographs as precursors. In each case, they were claiming these photographs as art as a way to separate them from most of the photographs that had been made. We see this today with the element of scale. A lot of art photographers employ a snapshot aesthetic now, but one of the ways art photographers separate their work from everybody’s mother’s snapshots, is by making their photographs very big. With photography there has always been a desire to separate art from other products of the camera. Pictorialism began, at least in part, as a response to everyone having a Kodak; pictorialists emphasised a differentiating materiality, rendering their images as platinum over cyanotype, or with the brushstrokes and hand work of gum bichromate. They made things that were really hard to make, to separate what they were doing from the snapshots that the Kodak girls were making. These historical patterns persist to the present day.
These days, as a curator of contemporary photographic art in museums and festivals, I often find myself working collaboratively with artists to move from their digital image to a material object, however long or short its existence is to be. We think together about size, placement, surrounding images, and other circumstances that will affect the viewers’ reception and understanding of the work. The artist speaks to his or her aspirations and intentions, but what I may know about the physical environment and cultural circumstances that the image-become-object will live in is also part of the discussion.
A museum establishes separate spaces where we can focus on objects and images we might not see as clearly in the world from which they have been extracted. It is a place for looking, and a place where a community of people of differing backgrounds, education, and perspectives can meet at an object and interpret it together.
In much the same way that a photographer may frame and elevate aspects of the ordinary, so a museum isolates and ennobles the things it shows.
Today, when we can consume photographic images in so many ways other than in a building, it is encouraging to see that the direct physical experience persists and that the language of exhibition incorporates both past and future.