A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play @Morgan Library

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing 85 photographs/photographic works, variously framed and matted, and hung against grey walls in a single room gallery space interrupted by a handful of small dividing walls. The works span a wide variety of photographic/printing processes, and were generally made between 1858 and 2013, with one engraving from 1671. Physical dimensions range from roughly 4×3 to 51×41 (or reverse). The show was curated by Joel Smith, and was drawn from both the museum’s permanent collection and from some 25 private collections.

The following photographers were included in the exhibit:

Acme Photography Bureau, Vito Acconci, Robert Adams, Anonymous, Ilse Bing, Samuel Bourne, Marco Breuer, Julia Margaret Cameron, Chambertin, Edward Curtis, Tim Davis, Vicomte Aymard de Banville, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Frederick Evans, Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Farfa, Roger Fenton, Robert Frank, Noriko Furunishi, Luigi Ghirri, Allen Ginsberg, Eugene Goldbeck, Heinz Hajek-Halke, Florence Henri, Ray Johnson, Athanasius Kirchner, Philip Adolphe Klier, John Lehr, Liu Wei, Mike Mandel, Christian Marclay, NASA, John O’Reilly, Irving Penn, Pierre Pullis, George Rockwood, Tomoko Sawada, Schagge Brothers Studio, Charles Schenk, Jose Maria Sert, Charles Sheeler, Julius Shulman, Malick Sidibé, Richard Sharpe Shaver, Sandy Skoglund, Keith Smith, Giorgio Sommer, Louis Stettner, Ezra Stoller, Karl Struss, Larry Sultan, Sid Tate, Adolphe Terris, George Tice, Gaston Tissandier, Underwood & Underwood Studio, Sara VanDerBeek, Wallace Studio, William Wegman, Robert Wiles, Maximilian Wolf, Georgii Zimin.

While no photography was allowed in the galleries, the installation shots below were provided by the museum, courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum, photography by Graham S. Haber, 2014.

Comments/Context: Whether by the nature of their permanent collections or by the personalities and interests of their directors and curators, over time, museums develop distinct identities and temperaments. From a photography perspective, it would be hard to close our eyes and confuse shows put on by the Met and MoMA, or even the Whitney and the Guggenheim – these institutions come at the medium of photography from remarkably different angles, and end up with shows that leverage their strengths and match their dispositions with surprising consistency.

In 2012, Joel Smith took over as the first curator of photography at the Morgan Library, and in many ways, this show is a kind of debutante ball, an inaugural reintroduction of the stately Morgan as a place where photography is going to be actively considered on a going forward basis. While having any major museum the caliber of the Morgan join the conversation about photography is certainly cause for celebration, the intelligence that Smith has applied to this re-entry is worth noting – he didn’t just do what the others are doing, but has instead taken stock from his own vantage point (namely an astounding strength in books and works on paper) and offered a different vision of the medium. What’s exciting is that the claim he appears to have staked is broad and inclusive, stretching across time periods and processes, from archly conceptual to snapshot and vernacular, across high and low culture, asking us to see photography as an evolving, ever changing confluence of approaches and visual ideas. While we might have expected the Morgan to follow and develop an interest in photobooks, it’s clear that we’re going to get something much more integrated and far reaching. This is a boldly alternate, almost contrarian path, and it bodes well for the development of some durably original thinking.

This whimsical group exhibition basically rejects the tyranny of wall labels – you know the one, where you approach an unknown photograph, read the label and find out that it is by Edward Weston, and then step back and nod approvingly now that you know it was made by a recognized master, having bypassed your own judgment in favor of the curator’s. Instead, Smith has assembled an eclectic group of photographs and photographic objects, from known and unknown photographers, and simply asked us to look at them carefully rather than assume the pose of derived opinion. Each work acts like a serial link in a chain, each having some connection to the work that comes before and after it in the controlled parade. And while there are wall labels here, they are more of a supporting afterthought (and weren’t needed in my opinion), as the process of decoding Smith’s puzzle is far more joyfully engrossing than chasing after any obscure details.

Smith’s echoes run the gamut from the painfully obvious to the gleefully arcane, tracing straightforward commonalities of subject matter and color as well as more obtuse connections of composition, thematic content, conceptual approach, and apparent function. An anonymous top-down murder scene from the NY Police Department and an astronaut floating in space from NASA are both “bodies adrift”. Baseball connects Mike Mandel’s goofy photographer trading cards and an anonymous portrait of a skeleton swinging a bat. A three-in-one portrait from the turn of the century is paired with Tomoko Sawada’s photobooth self-portraits, both exploring multiple identities. Bottles tie together an Alfred Eisenstaedt portrait of Sophia Loren mixing oil and vinegar for a salad and a pop photographica wedding souvenir with a cabinet card inside a glass bottle. And Irving Penn’s image of John Cage tuning a piano interacts with Georgii Zimin’s photogram of nails via the witty heading of “nuts and bolts”. On and on this clever repartee goes, until you circle the room and return to the entry door, having looked at these disparate photographs in a fresh, engaging way, seeing links that were always there but that we’ve somehow forgotten how to see.

The main reason this exhibit functions so successfully is that it gets us back to seeing a photographic image from multiple vantage points; it pulls a common thread through wildly unlike works, reminding us of the universality and the flexibility of this medium, reinforcing the idea that it is possible to have fun with photography whatever its form. If there’s anything we all know about our oversaturated world of digital media, it’s that images can be connected in an infinite variety of ways; Smith’s show brings that point home with the kind of clarity that will appeal to both scholarly academics and bored smartphone toting teenagers. Mostly, he’s asked us to open our eyes with creativity, to get beyond categorizations and to allow ourselves to flow with quirky serendipity. It’s an refreshingly out-of-the-box approach to thinking about photography, and a daringly auspicious (re)beginning for photography at the Morgan.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibit, there are, of course, no posted prices, and given the eclectic group show nature of this set of selections, we will dispense with our usual discussion of prices and secondary market history.

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