New forums for documentary – Contemplating documentary

Reading this section I had to consider the ’emergence of the art gallery as a valid forum for showing documentary photographs.’ Does displaying them in such a manner give them a ‘quality of an art object’ which in some instances would be wrong eg famine, war, disasters…

The issue of ethics and aesthetics comes to the fore.

Exercise The judgement Seat of Photography (in Bolton, 1992, pp.15-48)

Read the article ‘The Judgment Seat of Photography’ (Christopher Phillips 1982)

Add to your learning log the key research materials referenced in the text.

A long and fairly complex essay on the topic of photography as art looking at MoMA, Walter Benjamin The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction, John Szarkowski, “Photography and the Private Collector,” Aperture, vol. 15, no. 2 (Summer
1970), n.p. , to reference the first 2 key research points.

Phillips opens his discussion with the ways of looking at art; cult value and exhibition value leading onto the value of a piece due to its perceived authenticity. Photography altered the availability and accessibility of many of these objects. Apparently a Theodor Adorno did not share all of Benjamin’s ideas on the subject.

We then are introduced more to the role of MoMA in photographic history.

From the time of MoMA’s opening in 1929, photography received the
museum’s nodding recognition as one branch of modernist practice, doubtless
spurred by MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s awareness of the photographic
activity of the European avant-garde. The first showings of photography at the
museum resulted, however, from the intermittent enthusiasms of Lincoln
Kirstein, then one of the most active members of the MoMA Junior Advisory
Committee. It was Kirstein who, with Julian Levy, in 1932, arranged the first
exhibition to feature photographs (in this case giant photomurals by Steichen
and Berenice Abbott, among others) in “Murals by American Painters and
Photographers.” The next year, Kirstein sponsored the showing of photographs
of American Victorian houses by his friend Walker Evans -a project Kirstein
had conceived and personally financed. Until 1935, however, the date of
Beaumont Newhall’s arrival as librarian (replacing Iris Barry, who now headed
the new Film Department), no MoMA staff member spoke with authority for
photography’s interests.6

Newhall’s exhibition, “Photography 1839-1937,” is usually cited as a crucial step in the acceptance of photography as a full-fledged museum art. Art museums had been set apart from history or science museums and supposedly provided ‘joy not knowledge.’ Which could explain an ingrained mistrust of taking photography as a ‘serious’ medium when displayed in such venues.

Phillips informs us that: ‘Newhall’s exhibition is frankly uninterested in the old question of photography’s status among the fine arts; rather, it signaled MoMA’s recognition that implicit in photography’s adoption by the European avant-garde was a new outlook on the whole spectrum of photographic applications.’  Despite his obvious interest in photography he refused to acknowledge ‘photography’s place among the fine arts.’  Lewis Mumford is cited as stating:

Perhaps it is a little ungrateful for me to suggest that the Museum of Modern Art has begun to overreach itself in the matter of documentation.. . . What is lacking in the present exhibition is a weighing and an assessment of photography in terms of pure aesthetic merit – such an evaluation as should distinguish a show in an art museum
from one that might be held, say, in the Museum of Science and Industry.
In shifting this function onto the spectator, the Museum seems to me to be adding unfairly to his burden. . . .

Later when it was announced that Edward Steichen was to be appointed as Director of Photography Newhall said:

I just didn’t see that we could be colleagues. It was as simple as that. My interests were increasingly in the art of photography; his were increasingly in the illustrative use of photography, particularly in the swaying of great masses of people.

This was indeed the case as Steichen really didn’t care ‘ for photography conceived as an autonomous fine art.’

It could be argued that Steichen and the exhibitions he curated, for example Family of Man, elevated the role of the curator above that of the photographer, something that John Szarkowski is often accused of.  Steichen’s installations were also novel, drawing comparisons with magazine layouts rather than art galleries and accused of ‘sheer manipulation.’ Allan Sekula, ‘The Traffic in Photographs,’ Art Journal, vol. 41, no. 1 (Spring 1981), supposedly had quite a bit to say on the subject.

This changing role of the photographer from ‘autonomous artist to that of illustrator of (another’s) ideas marked the entire range of Steichen’s exhibitions at MoMA’  Up and coming photographers, at this time focused mainly on magazines for their livelihood, even the most renowned artist-photographers were selling their work for no more than fifteen to twenty-five dollars per print. At the 1950 MoMA symposium, ‘What Is Modern Photography?’ Irving Penn stated: ‘for the modern photographer the end product of his efforts is the printed page, not the photographic print. . . The modern photographer does not think of photography as an art or of his photograph as an art object.’ Showing that not all were happy to have their work adorn the walls of a museum.

John Szarkowski followed Steichen taking a different approach to his predecessor, returning to the ‘cult value’ of photography, ‘he represented an aestheticising reaction against Steichen’s identification of photography with mass media.’

His seminal work The Photographer’s Eye (1964) is frequently referred to and he had no fear in introducing controversial photographers such as Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander and Eggleston, to the art critics.

It was also noted that:

Szarkowski’s ambitious program for establishing photography in its own
aesthetic realm has been set forth explicitly in no single work, but arrived at
piecemeal in a series of slender essays over the last twenty years. His project
has followed, I think, three main lines. These include: (1) the introduction of a
formalist vocabulary theoretically capable of comprehending the visual structure
(the “carpentry”) of any existing photograph; (2) the isolation of a modernist
visual “poetics” supposedly inherent to the photographic image; and (3) the
routing of photography’s “main tradition” away from the (exhausted) Stieglitz/
Weston line of high modernism and toward sources formerly seen as peripheral
to art photography.


The role of curator is highly emphasised throughout the essay and the question must be asked with regards to the final display and  authorial decisions on inclusion/exclusion. On attending talks and study days where photographers have been present it has been interesting to note how many wanted to be hands on, were allowed to be hands on and those who just sent photographs along, am thinking of the Female Avant Garde compared to Edmund Clarke.

In any event any photograph within the walls of a gallery, online or in a publication can be taken out of context. Szarkowski himself stated:’To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft.’ (1964: 70).

Comparing curators to editors the power of choice lands firmly with the editor and a major difference between editor and curator has to be their objectives; illustrating a news piece versus the attempt to convey a larger visual communication through ‘art’. Never the less no matter the role, both become an ‘orchestrator of meaning’ (Phillips 1982).

This essay raises as many questions as it answers, but does give a lot of reasons as to why and how photography ended up in galleries and is often presented the way it is, especially when considering Documentary photography. Raising the ethics issue again and is there a difference between they portrayal of these images between a gallery or museum. I think there is, museums, on the whole, exhibit work to educate whereas work in a gallery is purely there to be bought and sold. Having said that the number ofmuseums that now host photographic exhibitions is on the increase and they sell a lot of merchandise if not the actual photographs! Gallery’s also encourage people to browse, often allow photographs to be taken of the work on the walls and you can get in for free! I have looked around more gallery shows than museum exhibitions…

Many photographers encourage the tag of fine art, Steve McCurry and Edward Burtynsky come to mind, as does Luc Delahaye. Much of the money raised does go onto the next project and the raising of awareness of certain issues but not all. Who am I in some ways to judge a person earning a living, if people are prepared to pay the money that is down to them. As covered in other posts I do feel uneasy to think of the profits made off the back of others’ suffering.

In conclusion the movement of photography from publications and galleries to museums is valid and does have exhibition value.

In response to making note of key research materials, there were 81 footnotes many seemed to be brief acknowledgments to minor points made. I have commented on notable people, events and essays in my response to the essay but others missed could include:

Jean Baudrillard, L’Echange symbolique et la mort, Paris, Editions Gallimard, 1976, pp. 85-88.

The Adorno-Benjamin correspondence has been published in Aesthetics and Politics, London,New Left Books, 1977

Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography,” trans. Stanley Mitchell, Screen, vol.13, no. 1 (Spring 1972), 6.

America in Modern Times, New York, Reynal and Hitchcock, 1934

Benjamin Ives Gilman, Museum Ideals, Cambridge,Mass., 1918.

R. Child Bayley’s remarkably brief “Photography Before Stieglitz,” in America and Alfred Stieglitz, New York, The Literary Guild, 1934, pp. 89-104.

Lewis Mumford, “The Art Galleries,” The New Yorker, April 3, 1937, p. 40.

Herbert Bayer, “Fundamentals of Exhibition Design,” PM, December/January 1939/40

Edward Steichen, “Photography and the Art Museum,” in Museum Service (Bulletin of the
Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences), June 1948, p. 69.

Allan Sekula, “The Traffic in Photographs,” Art Journal, vol. 41, no. 1 (Spring 1981)

John Szarkowski, “Photography and Mass Media,” Aperture, vol. 13, no. 3 (1967), n.p.

Hilton Kramer “Anxiety about the Museumization of Photography,” New York Times,July 4, 1976

Abigail Solomon-Godeau “Tunnel Vision,” in Print Collectors’ Newsletter, vol.
12, no. 6 (January-February 1982)

Peter Galassi, Before Photography, New York, MoMA, 1981, p. 17


Phillips, C. (1982) ‘The Judgement Seat of Photography’ in October, Vol 22 (Autumn 1982) pp 27–63

Benjamin, W. (1969) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ trans. Harry Zohn,in Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books.


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