The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

A Photographic Game

A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play
R. Wayne Parsons
Photo by Heinz Hajek-Halke . Source:
Heinz Hajek-Halke, "Erotik—Ganz Groß!" 1928-32

The Morgan Library and Museum, long known for its outstanding collection of books, manuscripts, letters, musical scores, and drawings, never placed much emphasis on photographs. But that changed recently with the 2012 creation of a Department of Photography and the hiring of Joel Smith, the Richard L. Menschel Curator of photographs as its director. Both the first Morgan show devoted solely to photography and Smith’s debut effort at the institution, “A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play” is an auspicious event.

In several respects a landmark exhibition, the Morgan show represents a notable departure from customary practices. Typically photography exhibitions are structured around the work of an artist, a substantive theme, or, occasionally, technique, whereas the underlying idea of this show are the relations between successive images displayed on the walls. Each photo has something in common with the preceding photograph and shares some other quality with the one next in the sequence. Thus each image is characterized in two ways. While the viewer is urged to discover these relations himself, (it is not likely the typical visitor will devote the necessary time and effort to experience the show this way,) the curator has made things easier for us by noting the associations he has used in selecting and sequencing the images.

Photo by Anonymous . Source:
Anonymous, "Montgomery Clift in Freud: The Secret

Passion" 1963

As we work our way around the room looking at the eighty-four ideas posted, we embark upon a sort of an adult treasure hunt, making for a fun time at the exhibition. But not all of these linked attributes are of equal interest. For example, “pink” is the similarity between two adjacent images, each containing something of that color — not exactly an overwhelming or entertaining revelation. Other sequences work better. One is “back turned,” first applied to a photo of a woman with her back facing the camera — which in itself is not so interesting. Following are the reverse sides of a group of found amateur photos with added captions — e.g., “This picture was taken in 1891 …” We don’t see the images, just the captions on the backs, a tease which seals the success of this sequence.

Perhaps my favorite sequence is “nuts and bolts.” It begins with Irving Penn’s photo of John Cage applying hardware to one of his famed prepared pianos, then links to a 1930 photogram by Georgi Zimin of more nuts and bolts made by placing the objects on the surface of the photo paper and exposing it to light. “Surface of the photograph” links another characteristic of Zimin’s photo to Marco Breuer’s cameraless image with an abraded surface. This kind of unexpected chain of associations makes this exercise entertaining and successful.

Photo by Unknown Artist . Source:
Unknown Artist c. 1920s

Of course, there are many other ways pairs of images could be characterized than those Smith has selected. One example is provided by two pictures of people on sofas, with “artist’s sofa” as the link. The first image is of a nude woman from 1920 by the Catalan photographer José Maria Sert, while the second is a Charles Dodgson photo of Alice Liddell and her two sisters on a sofa. But this pair could just as effectively been labeled “female models” — or even “sexuality” given the erotic component of Dodgson’s photographs of Alice and other young girls. The plasticity of the exhibition concept is part of its appeal.

Though not an exhibition that emphasizes individual images, there are a good many that capture our attention. To mention just a few: Vito Acconci’s 1971 “Control Box”, a witty conceptual piece that will give a laugh to all except those who object to jokes at the expense of non-existent cats, or Sara VanDerBeek’s image of light on a wall, ethereal in its simplicity. Traditionalists will appreciate Charles Sheeler’s beautiful photo of flying buttresses at Chartres cathedral.

Photo by Maximilian Wolf . Source:
Maximilian Wolf, "The Milky Way" ca.1900

The show starts with “light in nature” as the first concept and closes with “limits of the photographable.” The latter concept is represented by a typically awe-inspiring photo of the Milky Way and then a witty finale that is not even a photograph: a selection of almost forty “no photos” signs. It is as if we have embarked on a journey of possibilities and pursued it to its logical conclusion, one that allows for nothing more — an ironic commentary, since we know there is always another road not yet taken.

No one would argue that the conceptual framework of this exhibition should be the default template for future photography shows; the novelty would quickly fade, leading to some variant of “not that again!” But part of the value of this exhibition is that it opens the door to alternative approaches to prevalent exhibition policies and points at one possible, but hopefully not the only, solution.

Presumably this exhibition heralds an active acquisitions policy at the Morgan, the need for which is suggested by the fact that the great bulk of the photos displayed are borrowed from other collections. It will be interesting to see Smith’s choices. In the meantime, we eagerly await his next offering.

A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play
Curator: Joel Smith

The Morgan Library and Museum
225 Madison Ave.
Midtown         Map

212 685 0008

Friday, February 14 to
Sunday, May 18, 2014
Hours: Tues-Thurs, 10:30 to 5; Fri, 10:30 to 9; Sat, 10 to 6; Sunday, 11 to 6

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