The Shadow Archive: An Investigation into Vernacular Portrait Photography @Walther Collection

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 groups of serial photographs of people dating from around 1850 to 2012. The following works are included in the exhibition. While descriptions are given here as background, the checklist provided no information on processes, physical sizes, or editions.

  • Unidentified photographers, daguerreotypist’s display, ca. 1850, framed group of 48 sixth-plate daguerreotypes.
  • Unidentified photographers, Mansfield family record, ca. 1869, framed group of 16 ninth-plate daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes.
  • Unidentified photographers, Dalley family record, ca. 1872, framed group of 14 ninth-plate tintypes and cartes de visite, mounted on lithographic print with handwritten annotations.
  • Unidentified photographer, women’s class portrait, ca. 1865, framed half-plate ambrotype.
  • Unidentified photographers, workers displaying the tools of their trade, ca. 1865–90, 15 tintypes of various sizes, enlarged and reproduced as archival pigment prints on cotton rag paper, mounted on Dibond.
  • Attributed to Thomas Cunningham (American, 1836–1900), Criminal Photographs, No. 19, 1885, 6 albumen photographs from a ledger-style notebook, enlarged and reproduced as archival pigment prints on cotton rag paper, mounted on Dibond.
  • Caryl W. Bulson (American, 1882–1969), unidentified men, ca. 1929, 12 glass negatives, enlarged and reproduced as individually framed archival inkjet prints on cotton rag paper.
  • Unidentified photographer, employee identification badges for G. & G. Precision Works, ca. 1940–45, 80 metal pin-back ID badges in a frame.
  • Unidentified photographer, migrant farmworkers, ca. 1980, 48 individually framed chromogenic prints.
  • Unidentified photographer, Salpointe Catholic High School class portraits, ca. 1950–90, video slideshow of 314 black-and-white photographs, 26 min. 1 sec.
  • Santu Mofokeng (South African, b. 1956; lives and works in Johannesburg), The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890–1950, 1997, black-and-white slide projection transformed to video slideshow, 6 min. 40 sec.
  • Martina Bacigalupo (Italian, b. 1978; lives and works in Burundi), Gulu Real Art Studio, 2011–12, 48 individually framed chromogenic prints.
  • Unidentified photographer, asylum portraits, ca. 1920, 6 gelatin-silver prints, enlarged and reproduced as archival inkjet prints on cotton rag paper.
  • Jules Bernard Luys (French, 1828–1897), Les émotions chez les sujets en état d’hypnotisme, 1887, video slideshow of 50 selected and scanned images.

The exhibition also includes a vitrine containing books and ephemera related to the photographs on view, as well as the original tintypes, albumen photographs, and silver gelatin prints used to make the archival inkjet prints on rag paper above.

The gallery provides an informative handout with an essay by curator Brian Wallis, who organized the show. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: This provocative exhibition, which inaugurates a five-part series of shows devoted to vernacular photography in the Walther Collection, asks what photographic portraits taken for utilitarian purposes can tell us about societal structures and individual agency. Produced between the late 19th century and the late 20th century, the groups of serial images on view range from carefully labeled tintypes illustrating a family record from the 1870s to a trove of 1980s color photographs, its original purpose unknown, of anonymous migrant workers holding up identifying numbers.

Like these farm workers, the prisoners pictured in an album of mugshots belonging to a 19th-century sheriff and the nameless inmates of a psychiatric hospital around 1920 had no choice about being photographed. By contrast, the rural types who posed for chauffeur’s-license photographs in 1929 at the Upstate New York studio of Caryl W. Bulson were probably farmers or tradesmen looking for better-paying work.

Changing times are likewise reflected in a women’s class portrait from around the time of the Civil War; by 1850 more than 3,000 seminaries had been established to educate young women, resulting in a dramatic increase in women’s literacy and participation in the nation’s workforce. Elsewhere, WWII-era identity badges from the Long Island based manufacturing firm G. & G. Precision Works show that—during the war years, anyway—the company hired many women and African-American workers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, artists have assembled the most engaging displays of photographs in the show. Johannesburg-based photographer Santu Mofokeng’s slide show of late-19th- and early 20th-century studio portraits of middle-class black South Africans has intertitles that provide biographical information on some of the subjects, while also speculating on what their real-life experiences might have been. Gulu Real Art Studio in Uganda produced ID photos for clients by cutting the faces out of full-length portraits and discarding the rest of the picture. In 2011 Martina Bacigalupo, a photojournalist based in East Africa, collected the thrown-away prints, each with a passport photo-size void at its center.

These empty rectangles paradoxically call attention to details—a badly fitting jacket borrowed for the event; a child at his father’s knee—that might offer more information about the sitters’ personalities and circumstances. And, while the focus of this exhibition is on communities, each person pictured here, from a spotty teenager in a school yearbook to a migrant worker slumped on a yellow stool, insists on his or her humanity and individuality.

As important as it is in terms of mapping social hierarchies and the mechanisms of power, however, the show is disappointingly bound to analog culture. The inclusion of serial imagery by such artists as Doug Rickard, who uses appropriated Google Street View images to expose America’s racial and class divides, or Trevor Paglen, whose last exhibition at Metro Pictures included images (taken largely from social media) used to teach artificial intelligence networks how to recognize faces, gestures, and relationships, would make this collection more relevant to our current moment, when more and more people are surrendering control over their likenesses whether they like it or not.

Collector’s POV: Since this is effectively a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. And given that all the works on view are vernacular photographs, the secondary market context is less relevant.

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Read more about: Walther Collection (NY Project Space)

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