Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography @New York Public Library

JTF (just the facts): A large group show containing hundreds of photographs, photobooks, albums, and portfolios, variously framed, matted, and displayed, and hung against light grey and white walls in a large divided exhibition space (with marble arches and a carved wood ceiling) near the main entrance of the library. The show is organized into three main sections: Crowd Sourcing, Photo Sharing, and Street View. All of the works on view are drawn from the library’s permanent collection.

In addition to the images on the walls, the show includes a number of thematic cases, as titled below:

  • Artists Sharing
  • The Family of Man Exhibition
  • Careers in Photography: Ansel Adams
  • Memorabilia
  • Photography for the Common Good
  • Photojournalism
  • The FSA File
  • Careers in Photography: Edward S. Curtis
  • Clubs and Amateurs
  • The World in 3-D
  • Cartomania
  • Careers in Photography: Francis Frith
  • Careers in Photography: William Henry Jackson
  • The Ongoing Civil War
  • First Photobooks
  • Promotions and Advertising

Many individual albums, books, and prints are also shown in vitrines, and a few videos/digital works are displayed on screens. A large mirror hangs above the entrance to the show, reflecting the viewer and the text on the floor for easy social media sharing. The show was curated by Stephen Pinson and Elizabeth Cronin. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: As photography becomes ever more ubiquitous as a means of modern communication, institutions that we don’t normally associate with exhibitions of photography are getting into the game – it’s all about staying relevant. And while the New York Public Library has had, from time to time, solid shows of photography in various side hallways and alcoves, this is the first time it has taken a retrospective look at the medium, drawing on its unsurprisingly vast archive of material. What emerges is something unlike anything you’ve ever seen at a New York art museum, even though some of the work may be familiar. It’s eclectic, and diverse, and overstuffed, and gloriously jumbled, full of unexpected discoveries and detours at every turn, just like aimlessly browsing the stacks of a grand library should be.

The show is ostensibly divided into three thematic sections (Crowd Sourcing, Photo Sharing, and Street View), but these curatorial boundaries are hardly rigid or sequential – the whole imposing room is like a bursting cabinet of curiosities, and the fact that the photographs have been grouped into clusters hardly seems to matter. For those who prefer a direct progression or a step by step reasoned argument, this open-plan organization will feel chaotically all over the place; better to give yourself over to the joys of wandering and serendipity, rather than wishing for order.

At first glance, the whole Public Eye construct seems a bit hokey – social media, sharing, etc. – like a stodgy institution trying just a little too hard to be hip. But as the fluidity of this show washed over me, I began to see the clear congruity between this theme and its venue. This is a public library’s view of the history of photography, and by definition, the mission of this place is to be a collective repository, a meeting place, and an open, shared, archive that we build together for the benefit of all. The collection mixes high and low, art and science, historical treasures and arcane oddities, all with equal respect and interest, and the library’s view of photography is equally egalitarian, accessible, and participatory. The selfie-friendly mirror at the entrance door isn’t entirely a gimmick – it’s the library doing what it has always done, trying to remind us of how we can get involved with this tremendous resource.

Perhaps the most important insight this show emphatically delivers is that photography doesn’t rely on just one end point format. Of course there are prints here, but also even more books, photobooks, portfolios, albums, archives, digital imagery, and videos, all placed on the same footing. The underlying argument being made is that this diversity is directly related to the concept of sharing, and whether it was a stereoview or a carte-de-visite, a fold out panorama or a website, there have always been conscious, specific decisions being made about the best way to put a particular photograph in the hands of others, and a library like this one is filled with more varieties than many art museums with narrower views of what is worthy.

And so there is a kind of gleeful bouncing in this show, from AJ Russell and Timothy O’Sullivan to Bernd and Hilla Becher and Frank Gohlke, from California State Prison images to Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and from the New York City Tenement House Department to Aaron Siskind and Lewis Hine. A towering wall of FSA photos kicks over to Doug Rickard and Mishka Henner. Undeniable classics from Anna Atkins, William Henry Jackson, Francis Frith, and Alvin Langdon Coburn transition into Kodak contest winners and camera club periodicals. And Ed Ruscha’s Sunset strip is paired with Yoshikazu Suzuki & Kimura Shohachi’s Ginza, with Roy Colmer’s doors and Eadweard Muybridge’s San Francisco nearby. It’s like easy going free association, absent the pretensions of the white cube.

There is something refreshing about the NYPL embracing its quirkiness, and not doing what every other museum is doing. This exhibit should be a crowd pleaser for casual and expert viewers alike, with enough breadth and depth to engage a wide range of photographic tastes and interests. By staying true to its core values as a library, it has delivered an alternate view of photography that is both contagiously authentic and quietly inspiring. It made me want to spend the afternoon browsing through the stacks and viewing rooms, cutting my own eccentric path through the library’s vast holdings.

Collector’s POV: Since this is effectively a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. As a result, we will forego the usual discussion of individual artists, gallery representation, and secondary market prices normally found here.

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Read more about: Alvin Langdon Coburn, Anna Atkins, Doug Rickard, Eadweard Muybridge, Ed Ruscha, Mishka Henner, Timothy O'Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, New York Public Library (NYPL)

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Looks crazily inspired great, and well attended. While looking through the gallery shots I found myself singing the line
    ‘they’ve all come to look for America’.

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