As I walked into “Photo Currents,” one of the exhibits currently at the Loeb, I recognized many of the famous images lining the walls. A large television on one side of the room played a slideshow of striking photos taken in the aftermath of September 11, several of which were also viewable in print form on the adjacent side of the room. Photos of Marilyn Monroe, the Apollo 11 moon launch and the funeral of John F. Kennedy were also among the photos showcased in the exhibit. The thread that tied these seemingly disjointed moments together was not just the medium of photography, but the unique and vital role photos have in communicating information to the public. The description of “Photo Currents” on the wall of the exhibit detailed how the invention of photography forever changed the way we as a society process and receive news, and that “As we witness the ever-increasing power of images to verify and manufacture truth, looking to history offers a fuller understanding of our relationship to modern media as consumers, citizens, and humans.”
It’s hard to even conceptualize what it must have been like to read the news before it was accompanied by photographs. And yet, I personally don’t usually take the time to consider the impact of having images from all over the world readily accessible to me. My visit to “Photo Currents” challenged me to do so, and when I sat down to write about the show, I found myself pondering how photography has shaped my worldview.
The first thing that caught my eye was the television, which displayed astonishing images by different photographers following the September 11 attacks on the twin towers. In one image, a crowd of first responders. In another, a person on the phone in their apartment with their back to the camera, silhouetted before the towers. Numerous others depicted the buildings as they crumbled against the backdrop of the New York City skyline. And interspersed with the devastating images of the towers in flames was an image of a paper sign posted near the site of the attack that mused about the motivations of people photographing the buildings: “I wonder if you see what’s here or if you’re so concerned with getting that perfect shot that you’ve forgotten this is a tragedy site, not a tourist attraction,” the sign reads. “As I continually had to move ‘out of someone’s way’ as they carefully tried to frame this place mourning, I kept wondering what makes us think we can capture the pain, the loss, the pride + the confusion—this complexity—into a 4×5 glossy.”
The anonymous writer of the sign posed important questions about some photographers’ motivations, and when I read it, some of the distance that I felt between myself and the other images in this section was destroyed. It reminded me that every photo on that screen had been taken by an individual, and forced me to consider the photographer’s own personal perspective. While I don’t mean to suggest that this tragic event was documented for the wrong reasons, it felt important to remember that there were people behind the photographs, and that the moments they captured were shaped by their unique experiences.
I was struck by the same thought when I looked at the wall to the right of the television, which displayed a set of images of John F. Kennedy’s funeral. Rather than showcasing photos taken at the event, the exhibit featured photos taken of a TV screen broadcasting the news coverage of the funeral. The images were clearly shaky, and one would imagine that photos taken at the funeral itself would have been of better quality. Because of this, the viewer has to consider the significance of these photos; I tried to put myself in the shoes of someone living at this time and imagine why I would want to take photos of the broadcast. I looked at the images, taken through the literal lenses of ordinary citizens in 1963, and while I didn’t feel any closer to the event, I felt closer to the people who were living at that time. According to the description of this section located in the museum, “Stills and snapshots from the funeral broadcast not only documented this event, but they act as stand-ins for the shared grief and collective identity that formed around it.” It seemed that people felt a need to capture not just the video on their televisions, but also their specific experiences of viewing it, and photography gave them a way to do so.
Photographs are present everywhere we turn, and I appreciated the opportunity to take a closer look at the ways they can be used to keep people informed, document history and weave together stories. “Photo Currents” doesn’t just display images that are important to our nation’s history—it provokes questions about the line between photographer and subject, the nature of the media and the consideration of multiple perspectives. In a time when we have unprecedented access to an abundance of photos, right at our fingertips, these questions are more important than ever.
“Photo Currents: Media, Circulation, Spectacle” is at the Loeb through Oct 10, 2021.