Twenty-some years ago I attended the College Art Association conference that took place in Los Angeles. As part of the conference I listened to Victor Burgin (among others) speak on the common photograph. On February 19th the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth held a symposium in conjunction with The Art of the American Snapshot exhibition and the CAA conference taking place in nearby Dallas.
Before the digital camera, the mobile phone, or the combination of these two devices, Americans were taking and printing some 11 billion photographs every year (according to Burgin). I have no idea how many pictures are taken now, but Kevin Henry, faculty at Columbia College in Chicago, said some 23% are deleted in camera, and of those that make their way to storage media, 87% are never printed. Hearing both presentations, I couldn’t help but wonder at art historians’ sustained interest in the everyday image.
Back in the days of the film camera, I remember going to the local one-hour film developer near where I lived in Seattle. With permission, the folks that operated the machines would print duplicates for display at the photo shop. This impromptu gallery of the everyday held some remarkable images—what today Mike Kelley might refer to as the uncanny. At the time, American soldiers were returning from Kuwait and the First Gulf War, and mixed in with the pretty and colorful were mundane images taken by soldiers that were never a part of the mediated images presented in the pre-Flickr and pre-YouTube days. They were captivating not because of their retinal impact, but because of their object hood: the negatives had returned in the soldier’s duffel bag, and now were among the bins full of envelopes that held the prints and negatives. I mention this partly because my viewing of the exhibition made me see strong parallels between the curator’s choices and images that become memes on the internet. Perhaps there is an “uncanny button” in our brain.
Some years later I attended one of Charles Phoenix’s camp presentations with slides culled from his collections of hundreds of thousands of transparencies he found in thrift stores. In both displays—one presented live with pithy commentary—the images seen were selected from a much larger set, and in effect, curated by someone other than the image maker. Likewise, the show at the Amon Carter has undergone a similar curatorial pre-filtering; first by the families that saved and passed down the images, and then by Robert Jackson, from whose collection the snapshots were drawn.
I bring this up because of the amateur curatorial editing that took place took place before the final selection was made. Today, something similar takes place, with editing done in camera, and then a subset of those making their way into places like Flickr. In addition, web 2.0 technologies allow others to rate images sent into cyber-communities, save them to their own favorites, and even find their way into the material world through publications like JPG. At the end of the presentation I made a similar point, adding that unlike the institution, collections of images that are tagged and linked on the net don’t suffer from self-censorship, allowing what the NEA might deem pornographic to enter into the visual conversation. This is unlike Snapshot, which in effect deleted Jackson’s soft core pictures of hard-ons, putting up a metaphorical firewall between the art held in their trust and the public.
I asked if the internet in effect was putting the curators out of a job. This got a laugh, and John Rohrbach, Senior Curator of Photographs diplomatically responded that the internet—and folks’ choices of images uploaded—was in dialog with his practice. I wonder. His earlier presentation referred to Barthes’ Death of the Author. Could the death of the curator be far behind? Doug Nickel from Brown University responded by referring to his colleagues as, “A tribe: groups that share a common interest. 2.0 is a network of tribes. Museum curators are another tribe.” This makes me wonder if such an esoteric group as art historians that communicate in the hermetic world of peer-reviewed journals and conference symposia should be employed as curators, and control the velvet rope between the museums’ collections and the public.
When I later wandered through the adjacent Kimball Museum and saw their Greek pottery, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Getty’s sizable collection of similar objects, illustrating the puerile interests of the Greeks. Now days, those images of erect and uncircumcised youth are no longer on display in the refurbished Getty Villa, relegated to storage, shut up in a box.
Lastly, I wanted to comment about the interesting arrangement of the three lectures in the first half of the symposium. First up was to be CalArts’ Alan Sekula. He called in sick, and his 35 year-old essay, “Meditations on a Triptych” was read. Third up was Sarah Greenough, Curator and Head of the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. She spoke about Lartigue, Kertesz, and the Idea of Naiveté in Modern Photography. Like the reverse symmetricality found in the outside panels of Medieval triptychs, one used iconography and the well-polished rhetoric of the art world to frame common everyday snapshots, and the other talked about photographers—that at points in their careers—tried to pass their polished and iconographic images as the product of the common man.
The middle position was held by Nancy West from the University of Missouri, who talked about amateur photographs of small-town life. What was most interesting it that she also showed Kodak advertisements that promoted the taking of pictures similar to some of those that she presented. I couldn’t help but plug this trio of presentations into an economic model. In the days of the Brownie, Kodak ran the whole show: from making cameras and film, as well as developing and printing the pictures. The dollar Brownie camera introduced the consumer into a system where each press of the shutter resulted in profit for the Eastman Kodak Company. It was in their best interests to offer a free subscription to the Kodakery, encouraging consumers to become better photographers through practice. Kodak pictures are the commodity that markets themselves. Images by fine art photographers are held up as in example, skills are taught, and the picture taking improves. It’s no wonder that the high looks like the low and the low gets shown in museums. What a boon to Kodak when MoMA created a new department for their medium.
Now days, it seems like printing 13% of digital images is an anachronism, a holdover by those who were raised with negatives and film. I rarely print anything, and wonder why when I do. My own film camera gets pulled out for specific tasks, and then the images produced are scanned and manipulated digitally. In this modern world, where we all can curate and view uncensored collections on-line, profits go to hardware and software makers, and to ISPs. There is little financial incentive to make the digital image taker a better photographer (formally). Instead we become connoisseurs of the uncanny, and instead we become proficient identifiers of the aberrational. We need only to remember the image of the corpse of Pope John Paul II, cell phone cameras raised high above the sea of heads to foresee our visual fate, no museum show required.