Shaping the History of Photography
Hary Ransom Center, Austin
Through October 2, 2010
by Barry Stone
Collections, like histories, are inherently abstractions, pieces of a whole and subject to distortion. As part of its biennial Flair Symposium, the Harry Ransom Center hosted a three-day conference entitled “Shaping the History of Photography,” held in conjunction with and inspired by the exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: the Gernsheim Collections. Acquired in 1963 by the University of Texas at Austin, the collection of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim consists of approximately 35,000 photographs, including what is considered to be the first photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, ca. 1826.
Contained in a dark reverent cubicle-like encasement at the HRC, Niépce’s heliograph must be viewed behind glass and at various angles in order to discern its ghostly image reflected by its mirror-like pewter surface. The “First Photograph,” like all the photographs in the collection, is at once an image and a revered object. Upon its discovery, Gernsheim was at pains to create a suitable reproduction that matched his grandiose visions for his collection. In an effort to offer a corrective for Gernsheim’s own extreme retouched graphic distortions, the HRC teamed up with the Getty Conservation Institute in 2002 to produce a more faithful, albeit inscrutable, digital iteration. This final reproduction, by virtue of its static nature, also fails to describe the object whose fidelity undulates with different angles of view. Seen in aggregate in the HRC exhibition, four variants of the “First Photograph”(1952-2002) offer a close description of the illusive experience of viewing the piece itself. In doing so, this process parallels the murky process by which a history of image/objects is constructed.
Helmut Gernsheim was a man with a mission. Through his prolific writings and the gathered material support of his collection, he worked tirelessly and polemically for over 25 years to advocate for photography as a field of academic study and aesthetic inquiry. Gernsheim literally wrote the book(s) on photographic history. His descriptions of photography’s beginnings and techniques are considered invaluable and still stand as definitive.
In addition to the pursuit of legitimacy, Gernsheim had another agenda. He wanted to show a teleological aesthetic progression of photography as art form. For him, the legacy began with the naïve pictorial images created by the medium’s early practitioners and ultimately culminated in the New Objectivity movement. This problematic historiography was rarely dealt with head-on at the symposium, with the exception of Steven Hoelscher, the Academic Curator of Photography at the HRC, who offered a mild rebuke of Gernsheim’s methods in his concluding remarks.
Many of the symposium’s attendees and panel members were party to and inspired by Gernsheim’s struggle. While prejudices still remain toward the medium (and Gernsheim’s historical methodologies) today, it is in part thanks to his efforts, along with those of the speakers and organizers, that photography is finally recognized as a bona fide academic discipline and fine art. In this light, the conference itself could be considered a victory lap taken by the organizers of the event (David L. Coleman, the Curator of Photography at the HRC, and Roy Flukinger, the HRC’s Senior Research Curator of Photography, whose 354-page fully illustrated catalogue The Gernsheim Collection was published to coincide with the symposium and exhibition).
The symposium panels covered various topics concerning the important roles collections play in creating a place for critical and cultural inquiry. Alison Nordström, the curator of Photographs at George Eastman House, suggested during the panel on historiography that despite the panelists’ varied biases and occupations, their interests meet at the study of the object: the print. James B. Colson, the longtime documentarian and educator, responded provocatively by raising the question of the move away from an image/object discourse into a digital conversation, causing the crowd to collectively gasp and laugh in unison.
This symposium was a celebration of physical material: image/objects that have been coveted and canonized. The collection consists of hard-won beautiful fragments from which Gernsheim assembled a linear narrative of an autonomous and insular field of artistic production. Through its sheer mass and breadth, the Gernsheim collection offers a myriad of possible opportunities to excavate new histories from within its important holdings. There was so much to be discussed of the remnants of the past, however, that there was little time left for the consideration of the medium’s present state, much less its future or interaction with other media. If photography was once the misunderstood underdog that now commands the museum floor, must it only be evaluated in relation to itself?
Indeed, photography is an extremely popular endeavor; arguably everyone who owns a cell phone is a now a photographer. At auction houses, contemporary art photographs fetch millions of dollars. Gernsheim would no doubt be happy to note that even art historian Michael Fried has turned his critical pen toward photography. The medium is so omnipresent today that we are seeing a backlash of sorts in the form of pronouncements of its imminent demise, as evidenced in SFMOMA’s recent symposium held last April, “Is Photography Over?” As we tread more deeply into the digital age, it is ironic that as we celebrate its historical arrival, object/image-based photography breaks the tape at the finish line of legitimacy only to stumble and fall into its own grave.
Barry Stone is an artist based in Austin and Assistant Professor of Photography at Texas State University, San Marcos.