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, non-chronological exploration of the form, taking as their guiding principle the idea of collaboration—or lack thereof—between photographer and subject.

The challenging of photography’s conventions and traditional power dynamics; interrogation of documentary images’ truth status; enlisting of the subject as collaborator; and reinterpretation of historical and vernacular images go back at least to the 1970s, and many of the bodies of photographic work addressed in this show are already well known. Here, however, they are brought together with current photographic 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 square describing a particular photographic project through images and text. The squares are then arranged in eight grids, each grid representing an area of investigation. Held in place by magnets and incorporating blank squares, the grids can be added to and revised as the enterprise progresses.

The grid entitled “The photographed person was always there,” for example, 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 as actors 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, the 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.

A grid with the title “The photographer seeks to reshape the traditional authorial position through the photographed persons’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. Here, Meiselas is represented 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 presents their 2014 project “New Ways of Photographing the New Masai,” while 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 photographic 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 a nearby grid, “Potentializing Violence,” featuring examples from, among other series, Meiselas’s 1970s study of carnival strippers; Donna Ferrato’s s 1980s series on battered women, “Living with the Enemy”; Nhem Ein’s meticulous documentation, taken 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, unveiled at Garanger’s commander’s request, stare him down with palpable fury.

Squares in the grid “Co-archiving” include such co-authored projects as Lebanese artists 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 in collaboration with Farm Security Administration (FSA) photo archivist Edwin Rosskam; and Rosângela Rennó’s crowd-sourced documentation of Rio shantytowns removed in the run-up to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Another grid, “The sovereign and civil potential of the apparatus” includes examples—collected by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes—of surveillance photographs taken by Prague’s secret police in the 1950s through the 1980s. They are paired with new filming tips for activists 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 LBGTQ youth. Elsewhere, “Iconization is preceded by collaboration; collaboration is potentially icononclastic” outlines the histories of such iconic photos as Dorothea Lange’s 1936 portrait of the 32-year-old sharecropper Florence Owens Thompson; Nick Ut’s 1972 picture of the Napalm burned Vietnamese child Kim Phuc; and Alberto Korda’s Guerrillero Heroico (1960) of Che Guevara.

Collaborators in a photographic event, as the exhibition’s organizers note, not only include 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 has the potential to address injustices old and new, and perhaps bring us, the viewers, to a greater awareness of our own collaboration with others in the images around us.

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

Read more about: Susan Meiselas, Wendy Ewald, Slought (UPenn)

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