Stories from the Camera: Reflections on the Photograph
Edited by Michele M. Penhall
Preface by Kymberly Pinder
Essays by Thomas Barrow, Geoffrey Batchen, Van Deren Coke, Sarah Greenough, Christopher Kaltenbach, Beaumont Newhall, Robert ParkeHarrison, Eugenia Parry, Meridel Rubenstein, Richard Rudisill, April M. Watson, Carla Williams, and Joel-Peter Witkin.
The University of New Mexico Press, 2015
Reviewed by Lauren Greenwald
How do we look at photographs? How does the way we perceive a photograph change as we view an image on a glowing computer screen, and then, as we see it reproduced on the printed page in a book? What is it then like to see the thing itself, hanging on a wall, behind glass, in a museum or gallery, and THEN, how does it affect us to actually touch that object and hold it in our bare (but very clean) hands? Try to count the number of times you’ve had the opportunity to do THAT.
As Michele M. Penhall writes in the introduction to her wonderful new book, Stories from the Camera: Reflections on the Photograph, “The privilege and experience of looking at original works of art cannot be overstated. The size and scale of a work, the particular characteristics and nuances of canvas, paper, or metal, and sometimes even the faint scent of an object, are conveyed only in person.” Of course, most of us who study photography will never get to touch the iconic works we include in our personal pantheon of great images, but a few do.
Michele M. Penhall served as the Curator of Prints and Photographs at the University of New Mexico Art Museum from 2004 to 2014, and this book can be seen as her legacy; an intimate view of the phenomenal photography collection at UNM. In her time there, she curated over 20 exhibitions, including 2012’s Reconsidering the Photographic Masterpiece, a sweeping survey of the collection. It began as a teaching collection for the university’s faculty and students, and remains so to this day. I remember, as a new graduate student at UNM, asking what items I could view in the print room, and being emailed an excel spreadsheet with well over a thousand artists’ names on it, with the message, “you can request to see anything in the collection.” It’s one of my lasting regrets that I did not look at every single thing in the archive.
That archive today holds more than 10,000 photographic works, from 1,400 artists. The University of New Mexico was one of the first institutions in the US to offer both an MFA in photography as well as a PhD in the history of photography, and since 1962, when Van Deren Coke became the first director of what would become the UNM Art Museum, UNM’s extensive collection of photography has been built and nurtured by a succession of dedicated curators, faculty, artists, and students.
On a recent afternoon, I called Michele to talk with her about Stories from the Camera and its creation. When I asked her about the inspiration for the book, she laughed told me she was prompted to begin working on it when, while celebrating the opening of the 2012 survey exhibition, her friend Edward Ranney asked her, “where’s the book?” She had been thinking about a book on the collection for some time, but wanted to make it more than an overview of the collection. As she told me, “I wanted to write about pictures.” She stressed that it takes a long time to learn a collection, and stability and time to create a book. But in doing so, you can find so many gems – items by anonymous or unknown artists, rarely seen photographs from well-known ones; surprising and fascinating works of art. She cited as an example a relatively obscure Helen Levitt photograph, of two men sitting casually in chairs at the edge of a sidewalk next to an empty street, while in the background a horse drawn cart labeled Crystal Laundry Service disappears into the shadows under the tracks of an elevated train. Considering how many leading voices in photography, both historians and artists, have studied or worked at UNM, Penhall felt it was important to recognize this lineage, and how they shaped, or were influenced by, this remarkable collection.
The book, released this past February, brings together a selection of pictures from the collection along with essays about specific works selected by a distinguished group of former faculty and alumni. As she so succinctly notes in the introduction, “Stories from the Camera is a book about pictures and the stories they have inspired.” Regarding the contributors, “Through their own professional and artistic practices, they represent different generations of aesthetic voices and intellectual directions … Collectively, these essays represent a unique history of photography. These are their stories.” The contributors were invited to choose and write about any works from the collection, but they needed to reflect the their own experiences and connections to the works. Also included in the essays are previously published works from Van Deren Coke, Richard Rudisill, who taught the first photo history courses at UNM, and Beaumont Newhall, whose name became synonymous with the program. The result is astounding. In reading the essays, jumping from one writers’ perspective to another, I felt as if I was being exposed to a new and vibrant version of photographic history, one which moves effortlessly from the daguerreotype and its influence on American society to the surrealists’ ‘sabotage’ of the postcard to the history and contributions of African American photographers. This is a photo history told by its scholars and its practicing artists, one that recognizes the crucial connection formed when we look at a work of art – the sense of wonder and discovery we experience when looking at a photograph that profoundly affects us – either positively or negatively. Thomas Barrow’s essay, Mean Streets, captivated me with his selection of a never-before exhibited (but acquired in 1999) group of forty-four photographs made for a 1944 London publication, The Housing Manual, by a William Gordon Davis (Museum staff has subsequently been unable to find any further information on this photographer). In addition to these superb essays, twenty-one in all, the book includes 65 color plates reproducing more hidden gems from the collection. Recent acquisitions from contemporary photographers like Martin Parr and Alec Soth exist a few pages adjacent to an undated, anonymous Japanese photo album in which an elegant geisha gazes across the book gutter at an image of five scantily clad sumo wrestlers.
The sequencing of the images allows for many other delightful pairings spanning the 175 year history of the medium – such as the juxtaposition of two anonymous daguerreotypes from the 1850s against Robert Shlaer’s 1988 daguerreotype, Beaumont Newhall at Home, Santa Fe, New Mexico and a spread pairing Linda Connor’s luminous, gold-toned Untitled (Golden Gate Park), from 1972, with a gorgeous ca. 1895 cyanotype landscape by Arthur Wesley Dow. In our conversation, Michele Penhall mentioned that one of her favorite aspects of curating is “putting this next to that.” Her clear gift for this makes for an amazing photographic journey, full of surprises around every corner. This book is so much more than a unique selection of images. It’s a history of a collection, and the progression of people who have interacted with it and made it such an inspiring resource. The appendices are fascinating as well – from the list of the 1,400 photographers in the collection, to the timeline of the Museum’s directors and curators, to a bibliography of works authored by the contributors. I see this book as a valuable resource for both research and teaching, and a unique model for how we look at and talk about pictures.
In conjunction with the book, Michele M. Penhall has also curated an exhibition at the UNM Art Museum, Stories From the Camera, on view in the Johnson Gallery through March 2017. There will be an opening reception and book signing this Wednesday, November 2, along with the first of a series of three public events – A conversation between Michele M. Penhall and Eugenia Parry. For more information, visit: http://unmartmuseum.org/current-exhibitions/stories-from-the-camera/
Lauren Greenwald is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of South Carolina.
She lives and works in Columbia, SC.