Everything?

Photography Changes Everything coverThe advent of photography and how our burgeoning, and now ubiquitous, use of the medium has changed, well, everything, is the theme of essays in  Photography Changes Everything recently published by the Smithsonian Institute. A photographer finds it gratifying to read such sentiments, which make photography sound as consequential as did Michael Fried’s title Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before.

But “Changes Everything”? Doesn’t that give too much credit to a medium over its operators? That is a question best asked of an institution with the vision, and the time and money, to team up with Aperture Foundation, and open its archives to the 10-year Photography Initiative (2000-2010), at the instigation of Merry A. Foresta, senior photography curator. The scope of the project was as large as the Smithsonian itself.

The “Everything” is credible because unlike other collecting institutions, the Smithsonian does not collect photography for the sake of Photography. Consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities, it claims to be “The world’s largest museum and research complex”, housing ‘everything’, or records of ‘everything’, from anthropology to zoology. Several of its collections do concentrate historical and contemporary American, Asian and African art, but its mission statement is that of a research facility. Photographs from all of its museums appear in this book, not necessarily as art, but purely as photographs. As the late Dr. John Cato, my lecturer, would shockingly announce to his students; “Photography is not art…” (gasp!), then say “…just some photographs are.”. .

Smithsonian_Daguerrotype

Photographer Unknown, Architect’s model of the Smithsonian Institute Castle, 1846, daguerrotype, 10cm x 8cm approx.

It is the drawing together of photographs previously separated into a pantheon of disciplines that challenges our ideas about the medium and represents the ambitiousness of this considerable and lengthy project. In the introduction Foresta gives her account of the reason one of the earliest photographs in the collection was made; it is a charming daguerrotype of the architect James Renwick’s model of the proposed museum. This story is a key to this intriguing book. Geoffrey Batchen, quoted by editor Marvin Heiferman, says;“Photographs never have a single meaning; neither [...] does photography as a whole”. Photographs are open questions, prompting us to ask what, where or why they are, to tell ourselves stories that account for their appearance. This was the scheme of ‘Phiction’ which I curated for the Horsham Regional Arts Gallery, which matched passages from Australian literature with photographs from their collection in order to provoke the audience’s own telling. However this book draws on an array of subjects from a vast, encyclopaedic archive and not only art photography or photojournalism.

The commentators, 79 of them, including several whose careers would seem to only obliquely intersect with some manifestation of the medium, present an array of perspectives. You’ll recognise prominent names from other books on photography; Robert Adams, Wendy Ewald, John Baldessari, Andy Grundberg, Carol Squires; art practitioners and commentators whose comments we’d expect to see here. But other essays come from experts on shopping behaviour, aeronautical history, archeology, a curator of giant pandas, an online dating portraitist, a geneaologist, astronomers, the inventor of the camera phone, an actor, a poet who is also a photographer’s model, an eighth grade student, and even Playboy’s founder Hugh Hefner.

Such a range, and so many surprising commentaries, interpretations and stories, the factual as well as the fanciful, makes this a very dip-able book. The essays are short, rarely more than two pages and each concentrates our attention on a couple of carefully selected examples. The book is divided into sections: Photography Changes…What We Want; …What We See; …Who We Are; …What We Do; …Where We Go; …What We Remember. Under these categories, the combinations of images, or the title of each essay, or both, work magnetically; it is not long before you begin to make illuminating comparisons between themes and ideas for yourself.

Of course no book is exhaustive. I am still left to wonder how Photography Changes How We See…but that’s my brief for this blog.

You don’t even have to buy the book. It exists in its entirety online.

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