When viewers enter “Shape of Light,” the new installation in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, they are instantly struck by the familiar visual traditions on display: of Eadweard Muybridge’s locomotion; of compositional references to Manet’s Olympia in the vibrant reimagination of Mickalene Thomas; of Mapplethorpe’s illuminating depiction of implicit tensions; of Warhol’s polaroids…
The exhibition “Shape of Light: Defining Photographs from the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center” displays no themes, but rather showcases the experimental possibilities of the medium, envisioned by photographers both well-known and unknown. This display is a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Vassar College Advisory Council for Photography—and of the impressive collection of photographs that the council has acquired throughout the years. The Loeb held the artist reception for the exhibition on Oct. 12, where curator and renowned author Carol Squiers followed the reception with a lecture.
In her presentation titled “Expanding the Canon: Photography in a New Century,” Squiers discussed the modern history of the medium, through stages of technological, social and political changes. She opened the lecture by congratulating curator MaryKay Lombino on the strikingly expansive collection of
On the screen were some photographs that defined their time, and some others that are
“Gang Member with Brick” is on display in the exhibition, but its context remains unknown to viewers. A young man in a hat is pictured kneeling down close to the ground, right arm resting on the scattered tiles, left hand gripping a brick. The stark contrast of light and shadow contours the tone, but does not conceal the overt violence inherent to the image. The subject appears too vulnerable to be a part of a gang. He is on his knees. The light shines on his face and leaks out of his eyes, hinting a fatigued sign of hope. Yet this is only my interpretation: What we know for sure is that the pictured young man had just gone to the mortuary to see his dead friend, where a rival gang attacked. He had to run for his life. His posture is one of defense.
The “Canon” in the title of the lecture centers the photographer as the focal point of photographic history. The “expansion of the canon,” in Squiers’ terms, attends to the transforming structure of the industry, from a field dominated by white males to one inclusive of different communities. Photography is progressing beyond social boundaries of gender, race
However, this progression was interrupted
But this democratization of photographic authorship and viewership does trouble how the average viewer sees, as well as the “professional” community—museums, publications
Maybe it is time for us to retrace our steps to the beginning, and return to the physical medium itself—a once crowned, or perhaps contested wonder for capturing the fleeting, which now finds its place of prominence fleeting. Imagine how much we would miss, if Parks’ “Gang Member with Brick” only exists in the space of Instagram, overlooked in the sea of promoted content, confined in the 1080x x 1080x square, browsed through in a hurry and never revisited.
So go to the Loeb and see for yourself (and try not to post it on the ’gram, the frames are too reflective).