Extracted From an Archive
March 26 – May 9, 2003
Helen Christou Gallery
Guest Curator: Don Gill
Photographic Works From The University of Lethbridge Art Collection
This exhibition features historical and contemporary works that demonstrate a diversity of approaches to this medium.
Extracted From an Archive
“Anyone who reads detective stories knows that this genre places absolute faith in the photograph. Photographs are the blackmailer’s hole card and the private eye’s first piece of working evidence; whether the photographs are true is rarely if ever questioned.”
James C.A. Kaufmann – “Photographs and History: Flexible Illustrations”, Reading into Photography – Pg 193
How do you look at photographs in an Art Gallery?
Of course photographs and photographic work can be art, but as you wander through a gallery or museum you can view many photographs taken for completely utilitarian reasons that are now being looked at in an art context. Collecting photographs for exclusively aesthetic purposes separates them from whatever utilitarian purposes they may have been created to serve and they become purely visual objects. The Surrealist innovator Man Ray understood this when he used photographs of Parisian street life by the documentary photographer Atget to illustrate the Surrealist journal La Revolution Surrealiste. He considered Atget to be a naïve and primitive photographer who took simple documents which he then sold to artists. An important Surrealist principle was the discovery of or the assigning of new meaning to images (or simply eliminating the original meaning).
“There are, of course many different kinds of archive, from those held in museums to commercial or historical collections, or family albums.
What they have in common is the fact that they heap together images of very different kinds and impose upon them a homogeneity that is a product of their very existence within an archive.”
Derrick Price and Liz Wells – “Thinking about Photography”, Photography, a Critical Introduction Pg 35
When we look at photographs we look at what the picture is: a dog; a cat; a brother, sister, new car etc; or what it represents: war, famine, murder, crime, success, celebrity and gossip etc. This is the subject or content of the image. We see the photograph as a passage into another reality, one that is not present but exists in memory or fantasy. We also look at how the image is constructed: light, shadow, colour, contrast, arrangement within the frame, line. This is the form, the visual structure of the image that plays off the content of the image to make it visually interesting. The critic and photographer John Szarkowski suggests:
“In photography the pursuit of form has taken an unexpected course. In this peculiar art, form and subject are defined simultaneously. Even more than in the traditional arts, the two are inextricably tangled. Indeed they are probably the same thing. Or if they are different, one might say that a photograph’s subject is not it’s starting point but it’s destination.”
John Szarkowski from William Eggleston’s Guide
This idea has been the impetus behind photographic collecting for the past quarter century. In this view form and content are merged and construct a visual meaning that requires no other context. This can be seen as the construction of an archive of art. Examples of photography from the worlds of science, social documentary, portraiture, fashion, advertising, war, journalism, and politics appear in the company of photographic work that has no other intent than art. The meaning of the work is constructed by the juxtaposition of the images in an exhibition. For example, in this exhibition, you can see the photographs of Berenice Abbott, which were produced with no other idea than the illustration of scientific principles, in conjunction with the art photographs of Suzy Lake, which are informed by nineteenth century pseudo-scientific notions of composite photography and physiognomy. Iain Baxter and Jeff Wall, two of Canada’s best known artists, have made their reputations as artists rather than photographers. Baxter uses photography as one element in a many faceted studio practice and Wall, although his work is photographic, is talked about in terms of painting and art history. Through his use of the language of “history painting” in the construction of his photographic works he has been credited with reinventing and reinvigorating painting in the late twentieth century.
“We see this happening repeatedly, the anonymously rendered flash-lit murder on the front page of the Daily News is appropriated by the Museum of Modern Art as an exemplary moment in the career of the primitive freelance genius Weegee, Hine prints that originally appeared in social work journals reappear in biographical treatment of his career as an artist only to reappear in labor union pamphlets.”
Allan Sekula – “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning:”, Photography in Print – Pg 457
- Don Gill, Guest Curator