Ever since its creation in the early 19th century, photography has been fighting to become fully recognized as a form of art. In the history of museums, photography has had very little or no place in collections. With the rise of technology and the growth of photography as a visual tool, the medium has infiltrated archives and facilities slowly over the years, to the point of entire museums being created and dedicated solely to individuals, genres, and movements.
Subjectivity in Photography
Photography has thrived since the beginning of the digital age and this success has continued well into the early 21st century. Photography is a visual tool used to capture creative expressions of reality and human experience in a way that is seemingly more realistic than other artistic depictions.
While it is true that a camera does not lie, it also, as James Baldwin has said: “sees what you want it to see”. The artform is wholly subjective while being a direct visual representation of what is seen as objectively real. It does indeed take from reality but the context with which an image is taken greatly influences the resulting dialogue and the story being told alongside it.
Diversity & Photography
Being that it is an art form that directly deals with physical snapshots of real life, photography is a medium uniquely situated for the task of diverse inclusion through visually different and thought-provoking pieces. It can as Tasheem Asultan says: “repudiate stereotypes and explore social issues…each image evoking questions in…viewers mind[s] that…make them intrigued to learn more”. Along with other artforms, photographs beg to be seen through curious and creative lenses that lend themselves to constructive criticism and dialogue. There’s “value in seeing the world from…different vantage point[s]” but it is highly dependent on the inclusion of hidden and culturally fluid identities which have often been marginalized in the photography industry. The inclusion of diverse photographers does not solve the problem of subjectivity, but it lends credence to diverse perspectives of the world.
How can we gain a holistic view of reality while neglecting diverse stories and techniques?
Well, according to Michelle Orange, “We have always sought more from images than they are designed to provide”: a subjective perception of reality that is not representational of tangible and diverse human experience. Photography is not any more situated in reality than that of its artistic counterparts because it is drenched in subjectivity and context. Not only are images subjective, but it also matters whether the image was made as a piece of “fine art” (“a high-quality photo that’s emotional and meaningful) or a “commercial” piece which (“revolves around a product” with the goal of selling it).
Photography has the potential to include just as much as it can exclude and context matters, arguably more so than other art forms, because a photograph’s meaning is never explicit. Including diverse stories is helpful when adding to the narrative of human experience it is not a holistic view of what life is like for people living within difference, despite this, it is important to see that representation within professional contexts such as art galleries where it can participate in artistic debates.
Photography in Art Galleries
Because photography is such a versatile and diverse medium a lot of consideration has to go into what is displayed in gallery spaces, as well as what goes to specific collections and museums. In museums like the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the archives are full of modern photographs, showing the growth of photography as a medium as well as the growth of American society through the images taken over time. Museums like The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London showcases commercial photography such as vintage and contemporary magazine covers and spreads. Different genres of photography go to different collections that specialize in those genres, which is why many galleries, like the Three Shadows Photography Art Center in Beijing, China, open solely to showcase photography that centers around fixed genres and themes.
Curating Photographic Displays
Once photographs get sent to museums to be apart of collections and archives, the process of figuring out what is shown in gallery spaces begins. Emily Moore, an associate professor of Art History at Colorado State University, works closely with the curators at the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art on Colorado State University’s campus. When curating galleries she told us how photographs can be difficult to display alongside artworks from other mediums because of how photographs function as a visual tool. They capture the historical significance of a certain time period and many times visitors and viewers of a gallery space gravitate more towards that. This is problematic in some cases because it can take away from the other works of art being displayed. Moore says:
Emily Moore, Colorado State University Department of Art and Art History
It is especially difficult to showcase photographs in exhibitions that are dedicated to a historical movement such as Native American Art. People become more interested in seeing these eras captured in real-time through photographs rather than works of art that are painted or sculpted”
The range, as well as the ability, is why photography is such a diverse and sometimes difficult artistic medium to display, but that is also why it is such a moving and important subject. Photographs have created a voice for something that would otherwise be voiceless, it captures a point in time and it stays creating a question that viewers want to answer.