Photoshow: Landmark exhibitions that defined the history of photography

Edited by Alessandra Mauro
with essays by Gerry Badger, Michel Frizot, Alessandra Mauro, Paul-Louis Roubert,  
David Spencer, Alessia Tagliaventi, and Francesco Zanot

Contrasto, 2014

Reviewed by Leo Hsu

Issue 73

In photography’s history, certain exhibitions have served as reference points around which meaning coalesces, summarizing what’s believed about photography up to that moment.  They also provide points of departure for what will follow; this continuity affords these events a historical solidity, and they appear as nodes in what appears to be a necessary chain of events.  Photoshow: Landmark exhibitions that defined the history of photography examines the conditions in which some of these exhibits were produced.  The exhibitions presented here were often, though not always, spectacular in scale; they were all spectacular in ambition.

The exhibition here is new york, Prince Street, New York, 2001

The exhibition here is new york, Prince Street, New York, 2001

Eleven essays by seven authors take the reader on a historical journey that begins with the early public announcements of photography in 1839, and leads to, most recently, the here is new york storefront exhibit in Soho in the wake of the September 11th attacks.  Over the course of time, photographs move from wall panels erected in Victorian exposition halls to tiny galleries, to wires hung across a room.  We read about exhibitions designed to guide visitors along very specific paths.  There are essays about spaces that invite contemplation, whether distanced, as with the spaces created to accommodate installations and large scale art prints; or strongly narrative, as with the documentary projects of Sebastiao Salgado and Gilles Peress; or intimate and interactive, as with here is new york’s democracy of images. 

While some of the essays include floorplans and chronologies of exhibitions, the value of this volume is in the exploration of the many social, political, and personal factors at play that produced and shaped exhibitions.  The reader is rewarded with a history of photography that focuses not on how or why photography changed over time, but on the particular circumstances that shaped the ways in which the desire to present pictures was realized. 

Students of photography’s history will already know of the three-way contest between Daguerre, Fox Talbot and Bayard to claim the invention of photography.  Here the retelling traces each actor’s decisions whether to announce themselves in a way that would allow him to claim the title, and whether to show photographic images while doing so.  The essay, by Paul-Louis Roubert, is among the best in the book, told with the suspenseful tension of a high-stakes poker game.

Crystal Palace, built to house London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, lithograph ©Science Photo Library/ Contrasto

Crystal Palace, built to house London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, lithograph ©Science Photo Library/ Contrasto

Several of the pieces reveal the intersection of political and creative imperatives.  The Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855 are discussed in terms of rivalry between England and France, the authors focusing on efforts in each country to promote photography as both an industrial tool and a creative practice.  An American pride similarly pervades Alfred Stieglitz’s efforts to secure New York as the center of modern art, at his galleries 291 and An American Place.  MoMA’s department of photography and its statement exhibitions are the focus of another chapter, among them: The Road to Victory (1942) resonating with the theme of nationalism, and The Family of Man (1955), in which the American Dream intersected with American Cold War sovereignty.  

Other essays show how photography exhibits encourage visitors to engage with specific ideas.  Stuttgart’s 1929 Film und Foto underscores photography’s role as an essentially modern mass medium.  Robert Delpire’s large themed expositions of the 1980s and 1990s at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris, such as William Klein’s Le commun des mortels (1986-1987) invited the public to reflect on society; a mandate from the French government, coinciding with Delpire’s strong creative direction resulted in novel and forceful display strategies of expressive photography.

Three essays deal with exhibition genres (contemporary art, documentary, crowdsourcing) that have emerged in the last thirty years.  As art photography moved towards bodies of work that included installations, series and large prints, spaces that allowed the visitor to actively find meanings were required.  A juxtaposition of Salgado’s 1995 Workers and Peress’ 1994 Farewell to Bosnia asks how each documentary photographer wanted their audience to engage with their work.   And here is new york is recounted through an interview with one of its founders, Charles Traub, who explains how the crowdsourced exhibition, which eschewed conventions of gallery display with its prints hung from wire anonymously and available for inexpensive purchase, developed organically.

View of the exhibition William Klein: Le commun des mortels, 18 December 1986 – 2 March 1987, Paris ©CNP

View of the exhibition William Klein: Le commun des mortels, 18 December 1986 – 2 March 1987, Paris ©CNP

Which brings us to the present day:  Photoshow begins with an introductory conversation between Alessandra Mauro, the editor of the book, and Quentin Bajac, director of the Department of Photography at MoMA, and the questions laid out there are compelling.  As photography in the present day is increasingly immaterial, how does that immateriality influence creators who may be driven either towards or away from more traditional, material presentations?  How will curators innovate ways in which photography can be shared with public audiences?  How will museums, arbiters of collective memory, adapt to changes in photographic form and practice?  

Our social media feeds are full of images that have been curated “automatically” by our own habits and preferences; we get the world that we want to see.  The authority to “give” photography to the public has shifted from museum curators and government ministries to include the architecture of online communities.  Yet there remains an impulse to seek the fulfillment that comes with meaningful curation; see the many photography websites – such as Fraction - that provide an organizing filter for the limitless flow of creative photography.

Moreover, there is still value in sited expositions, and these forms continue to evolve.  Increasingly, photography invades public spaces.  Visitors once went to see photography; now, between online and physical innovations, photography comes to us.  Photoville’s container villages and The Fence transformed the Brooklyn waterfront landscape and has spawned Fences in other cities.  Pop-up galleries proliferate.  Dysturb wheatpastes photojournalistic images on public walls, forcing pedestrians to engage with world events, from which their online streams may have insulated them.

Photoshow provides a reminder that our ideas of how photography exists in the world are informed by a history of experiments, the results of which are now taken for granted. The essays here provide an opportunity to appreciate the uncertainty and possibilities that came before, and the certainty that followed.  Some of the essays will be useful additions to a photo history syllabi; the book will be enjoyable reading for anyone interested in how media exists and changes in society. 

Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Contact Leo here.

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