Exhibit retraces photography’s past

For Guest Columnist Hindley Wang, the current “Shape of Light” exhibit at the Loeb prompted questions about the role of professional photography in the age of Instagram. Yvette Hu/The Miscellany News

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 photo graphs in the exhibition: “It impresses me how important it is to look at original photographs rather than photographs from reproduction.”

On the screen were some photographs that defined their time, and some others that are lesser known, but fomented social innovation and change. Photographs ranged from the quintessential Walker Evans’ “Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife (1936),” to Eleanor Antin’s Californian experimentalist undertaking of “100 boots on the Ferry (100 Boots go East) (1971),” to the affective and unavoidably political work brought by Gordon Parks “Gang Member with Brick (1944),” demonstrating the capacity of the medium to both communicate and obscure. It is thus important to reflect when looking at a photograph; in the words of Squiers, “We have the tendency to think we know what we are seeing, but rather we are really only seeing what we already know…we need to keep trying to understand photographs.”

“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 and sexuality, as the photographers renegotiated the boundaries in their given reality with the camera in their hand. Squiers offered examples of pioneering artists who told different stories with their lenses. Through captured reality, they fostered and envisioned change in the fabric of our own reality.

However, this progression was interrupted with the emergence of the Instagram age. The future of photography now becomes a question with which many artists are grappling, including Squiers herself. With this sudden boost of accessibility to images, not to mention constant floods of algorithmic content, comes receptive aesthetic fatigue. But at the same time, there is also a tendency to degrade the validity of Instagram photography, based on the assumption that there is “real” and “pretend” photography. One has to account for the democratizing aspect that the digital age has delivered to our fingertips.

But this democratization of photographic authorship and viewership does trouble how the average viewer sees, as well as the “professional” community—museums, publications and photographers. Some might believe the seriousness has disintegrated. All accessible becomes trivial. The overwhelming digital accessibility robs photography of its strenuously acquired “aura” of its own. Termed by Walter Benjamin originally for painting, “aura” is the “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. ” All that was once at stake for the work of art with the emergence of photography in “Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is now at stake for traditional photography—only now it is in the age of digital reproduction. The materiality, the process, the patience, the attentiveness, the meanings, the originality, the presence in the given time and place constitute a photograph in all its former glory—all of that is bypassed in the digital age. The immediacy of visual sensation from digital platforms leaves the former order of photography in the dark shadows.

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).

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