Grasping the scope of the history of photography isn’t an easy undertaking. And with a rapidly progressing culture fixated on the instantaneous gratification of social media, it has often been a puzzle for me to comprehend how contemporary photography will embrace its past. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to bare witness to photography’s progression, but I also believe it vital to be reminded of the medium’s roots. To be reminded of where we came from and how that relates to where we are today can be quite a sobering experience. Such a reminder often comes as a jolt to our consciousness -- one that can shake us out of the current bubble we blindly navigate. This revisitation may also serve as an inspiring and rejuvenating reminder that as a photographer, writer, editor or curator we never fully travel alone, but are just one small piece in the continuation of a much broader and ultimately more important dialogue.
This is the headspace I found myself in after quietly absorbing Reconsidering the Photographic Masterpiece, an exhibition currently open at the University of New Mexico Art Museum. Curated by Michele Penhall, the exhibition showcases a remarkably seamless flow of the Museum’s photographic print and album collection. In one sweeping breadth it is one of the most comprehensive exhibitions addressing the history of photography I have had the pleasure of walking through. For me, it is a reminder of the evolving dialogue that has taken place since Joseph Niépce created the first permanent photograph in 1826. From William Henry Fox Talbot, Alfred Steiglitz, László Moholy-Nagy to Danny Lyon, Martin Parr and Alec Soth, the photographs exhibited display a comprehensive understanding and timely commentary on a culture oversaturated with images.
But being inundated with photographs isn’t something new. As Penhall states, “During 1853, less than twenty years into photography’s nascent history, American newspaper accounts reckoned that there were already some three million daguerreotypes made.” Around the same number of images are uploaded to Flickr on a daily basis. With such a staggering amount of photographs, there is an unease in being dragged into a sea of uninspired imagery. So, what distinctive qualities must an image possess in order for it to be inspiring? What makes a photographic work a masterpiece? By displaying a number of significant images -- from renowned to lesser-known artists -- Penhall carefully addresses these questions. Whether it is Steiglitz’s delicate silver print from his Equivalents series or Tamas Dezso’s magnificent Night Watchman (Budapest, 2009), the viewer is presented with an exquisite image and asked to absorb, contemplate and consider what makes this photograph a masterful work of art.
And to be honest, my expectations for such a sweeping exhibition weren’t high prior to attending the opening. My fear was I would be walking through the dusty halls of Beaumont Newhall’s classic textbook The History of Photography. But my reservations quickly dissolved when I realized that this exhibition had been curated in a manner that focused both on the traditionally examined history of photography, as well as the expanding contemporary approach of incorporating vernacular images, snapshots and albums that beg us to reassess the photographic dialogue.
While a bit overwhelming, this ambitious exhibition requires several visits to fully grasp the significance of the Museum’s collection and Curator’s intent. Meandering through the space the viewer is presented with striking representations of the surrealist movement, western landscape masters and a few of the practitioners who redefined the genre of documentary photography – and this is just one distinct section of the space. While gazing upon Robert Capa’s famous image The Falling Soldier I made a 180-degree turn to find myself engrossed in one of Eadweard Muybridge’s large-scale Animal Locomotion prints. The close proximity and placing of the photographs create a magnificent opportunity for an endless discourse of the many nuanced facets of photographic history. With this exhibition the UNM Art Museum has put together a show that not only asks us to reconsider how we approach looking at photographic work, but has also created an environment that challenges us to reconsider our own notions of an evolving photographic dialogue.
Installation photographs by David Bram with permission of the UNM Art Museum