The challenges of curating photography in the digital era

Introduction

In today’s fast-paced environment, there is an increasing level of incertitude, and we as a society are constantly put in a position where we have to reconsider past values and attitudes. To reassess not just how we think about everyday habits, or centuries-old traditions and ideologies, but also how we think about the arts, science and all the other subjects that some decades ago where still veiled in an untouchable aura of beauty and artistic, academic sanctity. These changes started to take place with the rise of industrialism at first, then they were carried over to the twentieth century and saw all the important historical developments, and are even today a topical concern.

The history, or histories, of photography illustrate this shift excellently. Of course, there is no need to start from the genesis of this medium and fill this short blog post with facts and dates that are more or less known to most people already, or are easily found online. As the title suggests, I would like to discuss the arising concerns in curating an image collection in a world where images are produced at an alarming rate by billions of people around the world, each and every passing second, 365 days a year. In a world where even the definition of the term curator is being re-evaluated, and might soon not only entail hard-working museum/gallery employees who spend years of their life creating appropriate spaces for collecting, storing, displaying and sharing precious works of art, but anyone who pins certain items to a Pinterest board, or organizes a set of photos on their Instagram page. Some curators would argue that creating an online database, by digitizing a set number of images and adding some metadata next to them, can hardly be considered curatorial practice. For now, however, I will concentrate on the concerns in curating a physical image collection, discussing some issues brought up by the curators of photography interviewed by the editor of a website called Curating Photography. The reason why photography is such an intriguing topic, is because it has its own history, one that transcends the sphere of art. From the very beginning, it has been a part of every aspect of modern life, including science, industry, technology and medicine, proving to be a “medium that straddles both art and non-art domains.” (Palmer, “Mia Fineman, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York | Curating Photography”)

The Histories of Photography

To quote Geoffrey Batchen, one of the first questions that come up when thinking about curating images is the “dilemma central to both art-historical and museum practice: what kind of histories can (and cannot) be told in exhibition form”? (Batchen 55) In an article entitled Latent History, he talks about the successes and failures of an exhibition organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an exhibition of 19th century calotypes, called Impressed by Light. The problems touched upon by him are indeed very complex ones. Thinking about the history of the medium, we can understand why: it wasn’t originally made as art, it was more of a scientific experiment with light, that took decades to perfect and countless new techniques had to be invented, each slightly better, or just slightly different than the other, before a standardized, widely applicable way of taking and developing photographs was finally introduced. As opposed to art, this new medium had a purpose, used as a way of recording history, of advancing science and was given a much soberer aura than art had, or a much more down-to-earth one. It was useful, indubitably, but it took decades before it would be recognized as an art form, and together with all its uses and its histories, finally became part of a more universal narrative of photography.

(Calotype from the “Impressed by Light” exhibition.
William Henry Fox Talbot (English, 1800–1877) and Nicolaas Henneman (Dutch, 1813–1898)
The Reading Establishment, 1846. Source: The Met)

Therefore, from a curator’s perspective, one of the most pressing concerns is whether or not one should delineate the difference between vernacular- and art photography, if and how to (re)present the technique(s) used to take and develop a historical photograph and so forth. When talking about the aforementioned exhibition, Batchen criticizes the fact that by deciding to only exhibit the aesthetically pleasing, well-developed images, and none of the faded prints, the curators failed to “demonstrate the peculiarities of the calotype“ and “viewers were therefore unable to see the variable quality of prints taken from calotype negatives, a key issue for photographers at the time.” (Batchen 55) He also stresses the fact that by removing the boring images of beech trees, by erasing “any signs of commerce or labour from the historical record”, “banning from its exhibitions any photographs already displayed in a shop window”, avoiding to display or represent the “commercial efforts by professional photographers”, the curator removes some of the value of these images, presenting them as items of personal, artistic expression, rather than items that were capitalist in aspiration. (Batchen 57) It is most certainly difficult to display these kinds of tensions in such an exhibition, to help viewers better understand what was at stake in the pictures that they are viewing, but it is important to try to render these representations as best as one can, to be able to give a full record of the cultural history behind this relatively young medium and its evolution, and stressing the fact that, at least with these historical images, the subject bears as much importance as the technique itself.

The ubiquity of photography and the question of (too much) access

To fast forward from the time of calotypes and daguerreotypes, as Susan Bright so accurately describes, today “we are experiencing photography at time when it is perhaps at its most vibrant and multifaceted within its relatively short history, when the ubiquity of one certain type of photographic practice influences the nature of art exhibitions in a way that has not occurred before.”(Palmer, “Susan Bright, Independent Curator of Photography | Curating Photography”) This is mainly due to the shift from the analogue to the digital, from film to digital storage, from heavy, complex cameras to mobile phones and point-and-shoot cameras, and has led to “the ubiquity of the photographic medium”. (Palmer, “Quentin Bajac, Chief Curator of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York | Curating Photography”)

In the previous section, I talked about the histories of photography, to which I must now add another element, or another history. That is the fact that most images don’t (only) exist as an autonomous print on a wall, or in an album, but some are only found printed in books, displayed on screens, seen in magazines, installations or slideshows. The fact that these can be found in different places requires a new type of pan-departmental cooperation, where galleries, libraries and museums must work together to be able to have a universal overview over the works of one photographer, each institution in possession of just one or a few of the artist’s creations. In this new era, there is a certain split between the different institutions, who all collect photographs, but as Quentin Bajac points out when talking about the MoMA as an example, they consider themselves a fine arts institution, “and acknowledge that they collect only one part of photography. There are other institutions that tell other narratives of the history of photography. We’re only telling one narrative.” Previously, curators had difficulties getting access to images; now the problem is that they might have too much access and it becomes exceedingly difficult to establish new filters to collect new pieces. (Palmer, “Quentin Bajac, Chief Curator of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York | Curating Photography”)

When dealing with images that were originally only published in magazines, there is another issue that arises. These artists had never printed standalone copies of their photographs because they were meant for other purposes, so the question that suddenly comes into the foreground is what size and shape these should be printed in when creating an exhibition? As Susan Bright argues, in a certain sense, the curator becomes responsible for “finishing the process for a lot of photographers, the conceptualisation, the taking it, and then finally the printing it.” (Palmer, “Susan Bright, Independent Curator of Photography | Curating Photography”) A similar problem arises then with images that are born-digital and might never have been printed at all, not in magazines or books or any other tangible form. In addition to having to decide what counts as art and what is not, to filtering through all the available pieces, this new age brings dozens of new questions to be considered in curating image collections, whether online or in galleries.

Understanding the publics

Photography exhibitions are increasing in popularity and many of the curators interviewed on the Curating Photography website all mention the same main culprit. As a direct consequence of the transition from the analogue to the digital realm, the interest of the public in this medium has spiked by because of the simple fact that in today’s world everyone is a photographer. A contemporary exhibition and the curators responsible for creating it, must take into consideration the fact that they are addressing an audience far more photography literate than any other time in history, and they must respond to it. As Susan van Wyk explains, “this opens up the fact that there are collections in art museums to an audience who is actively engaged with photography as part of everyday life.” According to her, “part of that fascination is just to do with an increasing literacy – well, it’s not really a literacy with photography – but an increasing familiarity with photographs that people now make for a whole range of purposes.” (Palmer, “Susan van Wyk, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne | Curating Photography”)

Quentin Bajac differentiates between the different publics, stating that on the one hand there is one specialized public, “very knowledgeable about artists, curators, historians, collectors”; and on the other hand there is a more general one, one that is “more knowledgeable about photography than they were twenty or thirty years ago. I think that we do not need – as we probably needed thirty years ago – to always go back to the beginning of photography, to have that kind of history of photography.” He also highlights the fact that this medium has become a very democratic language, as everyone has access to and an opinion about it, thus being less intimidating than other forms of art or creative expression. ”I think it’s a less intimidating medium and a more democratic medium, and probably something that is easier – I don’t think to ‘understand’ because I think it is rather complicated – but which gives the impression of being more accessible.” (Palmer, “Quentin Bajac, Chief Curator of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York | Curating Photography”)

(A chart from 2014 showing the amount of images uploaded to different social media platforms every day. Source: Business Insider)

The way we look, why and how we look at images has changed in the past few decades. As all of these publics are somewhat knowledgeable about photography and use it extensively themselves, curators have to address this issue in new and exciting ways. However, most people still find the idea of photographic prints a very beautiful concept, and appreciate their tactile quality. The thing that exhibitions can offer that the digital realm still lacks is the proximity to the physical object: viewers look at their screens all day, they might get interested in an image, but by going to an exhibition, they have the possibility to think about the difference between viewing an image online and in a gallery and ultimately challenge their views. There is a need to find a new way of educating the eye of the public(s), as Bajac explains, because we must “find new ways to tell that history. We must first be aware that we are not telling the history but a history, and that the history we are telling is probably different from the history told by other institutions.” (Palmer, “Quentin Bajac, Chief Curator of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York | Curating Photography”)

Conclusion

Curating a photograph collection is definitely a challenge even in today’s world. In its relatively short history, it evolved from a mere series of scientific experiments around two hundred years ago, to becoming an integrated, and important, part of our everyday life, a kind of record of humanity’s each and every, however insignificant, step. It poses a lot of questions to curators worldwide. Its versatile history, the fact that there is an important connection between art photography and vernacular forms of photography, brings up the question whether or not these differences should be clearly delineated, or whether or not they should be integrated in the same narrative? Do you create a separate gallery for photographs, or do you integrate them into the more universal, historical exhibit at a museum, together with all other relevant mediums of that time? Does that remove some of its value (by say leaving out the struggles of the original process, that the photographers of the 19th century went through)? Is it then maybe wiser to have a dedicated gallery, where you can focus on presenting the specific collection? How does one deal with the fact that the medium has now become so ubiquitous, and thus, such a familiar, safe and democratic form of self expression for the public, that the public itself must be treated, and educated, in a new manner?  These are all questions that curators deal with on a case by case basis at the different institutions, and that must be considered even when planning future projects of online exhibitions, where the curators’ role must again be re-evaluated, as so many other things in today’s society are.

Works Cited

Batchen, Geoffrey. “Latent History: A Landmark Survey of British Calotypes from the Mid-19th Century Reveals the Pleasures and Pitfalls of Curating Historical Photography.” 96.2 (2008): 54–57. Print. Art in America.

Palmer, Daniel. “Mia Fineman, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York | Curating Photography.” Curating Photography. N.p., 16 Nov. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

—. “Quentin Bajac, Chief Curator of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York | Curating Photography.” Curating Photography. N.p., 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

—. “Susan Bright, Independent Curator of Photography | Curating Photography.” Curating Photography. N.p., 13 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

—. “Susan van Wyk, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne | Curating Photography.” Curating Photography. N.p., 16 Dec. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

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