Every year a small group of students in the spring semester of their second year of the Photographic Preservation and Collections Management (PPCM) program come together to curate a show of recent acquisitions at George Eastman House. This show is designed to illustrate the ways in which the George Eastman House collection is a “living” entity. How we interpret the mission of the museum, to tell the story of photography and motion pictures — “media that have changed and continue to change our perception of the world” — results in the acquisition of new objects that can reinforce strengths of the collection, or suggests new ways of interpreting items already in the collection.
PPCM students discuss sequencing pieces in the exhibition
As students studying the history of photography, we were interested in photographs that are slippery, that change meaning depending on where the image is first encountered or how it is presented. We are lucky at George Eastman House that we collect a large range of photographs, art and otherwise, that have had a multitude of meanings throughout their existence before entering our collection. Our title, Art/Not Art, refers to the polarizing question we often ask of photographs, is it art or is it not?
Many of the photographs shown in Art/Not Art are art photographs, according to our utilitarian definition of the term, as they were they bought, sold, exhibited, and written about as art. However, this contextual information is not immediately apparent when standing before these photographs. The diversity of practice in contemporary art photography is well represented in the exhibition—the four photographs from Elijah Gowin’s “Of Falling and Floating” series looks radically different from Robert and Sheena ParkeHarrison’s “Suspension,” which in turn bears little in common with Binh Danh’s contemporary daguerreotype, a portrait from the Tuol Seng Genocide Museum.
Perhaps Binh Danh’s daguerreotype should then be compared to Ron Haviv’s “Darfur Girl,” a large-scale chromogenic print depicting three girls searching for firewood near a displaced persons camp in Sudan. In the summer of 2005, UNICEF sponsored Haviv to document the conflict in Darfur’s effect on children. While the composition and the scale suggest that this piece is contemporary art photography, does the use of this image to raise funds for UNICEF mean that it cannot be considered art? And, if Binh Danh’s daguerreotype is art, does that label limit its ability to document genocide?
Many of the photographs shown in the exhibition have been published in different places, for reasons that are not obvious when looking at the photographs. Joel-Peter Witkin’s series, “A History of Hats in Art,” was initially printed in The New York Times Magazine as a series of fashion photographs featuring extravagant haute-couture headwear. Alex Webb’s “US/Mexico Border (San Ysidro, CA)” was printed in Harper’s Magazine on an article on illegal immigration published roughly fifteen years after the photograph was taken. E.J. Bellocq’s photographs are more mysterious. Bellocq, a commercial photographer from New Orleans in the early twentieth century, took a series of photographs of women from the city’s Storyville red light district. His negatives were discovered after his death, and purchased by Lee Friedlander who printed his images and popularized them as art objects in the 1970s.
This was the first show that many of us have curated, and our approach to the photographs is typical of the questions that we often ask ourselves as future professionals in our field. Given the care and attention that we must provide to each individual item that enters our collection—a process that includes accessioning the item, assessing its condition and recommending conservation work when required, housing the item according to archival standards, cataloguing the item into our electronic database, providing access to the public via the research archives and through exhibitions, and, finally, maintaining it in perpetuity in our ever-shrinking vault—the acquisition process is very rigorous, and very important. So, how best to show the diversity of material that eventually makes it into our collection?
As much as any lovers of photography, we were moved by how stunning some of the items collected in the past five years are. As students of photography, we were also interested in how slippery some of the meanings of the photographs were over time, and in different contexts. The range of aesthetics in art photography, and the different applications of photography, whether for fashion, photojournalism, or for more personal reasons, suggests the impossibility of just looking at a photograph to determine if it is art, or not art.
As future custodians of collections of photography, we encourage an approach to photography that understands the rare slipperiness of the medium of photography, where images and objects often have unknown and unexpected trajectories before they come to our attention as candidates for acquisitions.
What We’re Collecting Now: Art/Not Art was curated by Jami Guthrie, Emily McKibbon, Loreto Pinochet, Paul Sergeant, D’Arcy White, and Soohyun Yang. The exhibit is on view through October 24th.