Collaboration: A Potential History of Photography, a project by Ariella Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, Leigh Raiford & Laura Wexler @Slought

JTF (just the facts): A total of 114 digital c-prints, each measuring 25 x 25 inches, arranged in 8 grids of 12, 15, or 18 squares on the gallery’s white walls. In addition to the prints, the show includes a table of books related to the project; a 20-point statement of intent; a “learning box for educators” consisting of a set of smaller versions of the same prints; and a 29-minute video. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The brainchild of photographers Susan Meiselas and Wendy Ewald, and scholars Ariella Azoulay, Leigh Raiford, and Laura Wexler, this ongoing research project proposes an alternative approach to looking at photographs past and present. Along with their students, the group is mapping a nonlinear, nonchronological exploration of the form, taking as their guiding principle the idea of collaboration—or lack thereof—between photographer and subject.

Challenges to photography’s conventions and traditional power dynamics; interrogations of documentary images’ truth status; the enlisting of photographic subjects as collaborators; and the reinterpretation of historical and vernacular photographs go back at least to the 1970s, and many of the bodies of work in this show are already well known. Here, however, they are brought together with current projects to present a lucid overview of the field’s transformation, over the past forty years, by activist photographers, scholars, journalists, and citizens.

The exhibition takes the form of multiple square prints, each describing a particular photographic project through images and text. The squares are then arranged in eight grids, representing eight areas of investigation. Held in place by magnets and incorporating blank squares, the grids can be added to and revised as the enterprise progresses.

The show opens with a grid entitled “The photographed person was always there,” which examines varying modes of engagement between photographer and subject. It includes a square devoted to Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron—who made ruthless, but relatively benign, use of family members, friends, and servants in her photographic tableaux—and another to polarizing Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki that includes a quote from one of his models, who recently spoke of his exploitation of her to the New York Times. Edward Curtis’s early 20th-century photographs of Native Americans—in which, an accompanying text notes, they were given the opportunity to engage in traditional practices frowned on by the US government—is contrasted with Kiowa photographer Horace Poolaw’s mid-century pictures of day-to-day life in his Mountain View, Oklahoma, community.

Nearby, a grid with the rather unwieldy title “The photographer seeks to reshape the traditional authorial position through the photographed person’s collaboration” gathers together bodies of work by artists who enlist their subjects as active participants in the process. They include Ewald and Meiselas, both of whom have long pursued collaborative projects—Ewald with children, and Meiselas most famously with Kurdish communities. Meiselas’ interest in collaboration is long standing; she is represented in this grid by an early series, made while a grad student in the 1970s, for which she photographed and then interviewed the inhabitants of her Cambridge, Massachusetts, rooming house. A group called Students of the New Capture School of Photography outlines their 2014 project “New Ways of Photographing the New Masai”; photographer Eugene Richards’s documentation of his wife’s 10-year battle with cancer is paired with an excerpt from her diary—in which she expresses frustration with him—and his own journal entries made after her death.

Like many of the projects here, this last is a piercingly intimate exploration of the subject’s physical vulnerability. The motif of the body at risk or invaded continues in the grid, “Potentializing Violence,” featuring examples from, among other series, Meiselas’s 1970s study of carnival strippers; Donna Ferrato’s 1980s series on battered women, “Living with the Enemy”; Nhem Ein’s meticulous documentation, made in the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S-21 prison between 1975 and 1979, of Cambodians about to be executed; and French army photographer Marc Garanger’s 1960s photographs of Algerian women who, having unveiled at Garanger’s commander’s request, stare the photographer down with palpable fury.

Squares in “Co-archiving” include such coauthored projects as Lebanese artist Walid Raad’s fictional Atlas Group (1989-2004), which used both real and fabricated material to present a history of Lebanon’s civil war; Richard Wright’s 1941 book 12 Million Black Voices, produced with Farm Security Administration (FSA) photo archivist Edwin Rosskam; and Rosângela Rennó’s crowd-sourced documentation of Rio shantytowns slated for removal in the run-up to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The grid labeled “The sovereign and civil potential of the apparatus” juxtaposes a square showing surveillance photographs taken by Prague’s secret police from the 1950s through the 1980s with one offering tips activist videographers from a group called WITNESS.

“When a community is at stake” considers projects like LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “The Notion of Family” (2001–2004), a portrait of her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and Zanele Muholi’s series of photographs of South African LGBTQ youth. Elsewhere, “Iconization is preceded by collaboration; collaboration is potentially iconoclastic” traces the histories of such famous photos as Dorothea Lange’s 1936 portrait of sharecropper Florence Owens Thompson; Nick Ut’s 1972 picture of Vietnamese child Kim Phuc burned by napalm; and Alberto Korda’s 1960 photograph of revolutionary hero Che Guevara.

Collaborators in a photographic event, as the exhibition’s organizers point out, include not only the photographers and their subjects, but also the photographs’ instigators and viewers. Although primarily designed as a course rather than a show, “Collaboration” is a humanizing, engaging, and generative take on photography that exposes old injustices and addresses new ones while also, perhaps, bringing us, the viewers, to a greater awareness of our own collaboration in the images around us and the conditions they represent.

Collector’s POV: Since the works in this museum group show are exhibition prints, we will forgo our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

Susan Meiselas, Wendy Ewald, Slought (UPenn)

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