Exhibition on view June 30-Oct. 21, featuring works by Julia Margaret Cameron, Frederick H. Evans, Lucas Samaras, and Edward Steichen
Rochester, N.Y., June 25, 2012—George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film presents this summer a gallery of photographs that demonstrate their persistence as cultural artifacts and a vehicle for memory and meaning. Ideas in Things will be on view June 30 through Oct. 21, 2012. Following its debut in Europe, these photographs return home to Eastman House, including works by Julia Margaret Cameron, Frederick H. Evans, Lucas Samaras, and Clarissa T. Sligh, and Edward Steichen.
Ideas in Things looks at photograph as object. Until the digital turn — whereas images exist as scans or Jpeg files — most photographs existed simultaneously as both images and objects. And, even now, it is as objects that photographs most fully enter our lives. This exhibition is drawn from the collection of George Eastman House, a small selection of art objects that are wonderful in their own right but also serve to illustrate the way photographs live, move and change over time in the material world we share with them. By including objects from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, it also demonstrates the continuation of certain physical interactions that exemplify the lives of an object after it leaves the circumstances of its making.
“It is the object, not the image that museums have traditionally kept, cared for, catalogued and stored,” said Dr. Alison Nordström, Eastman House’s senior curator of photographs and director of exhibitions. “It is not the image but the thing that bears the image that we write on, tear up in anger, brandish or burn in protest, kiss, touch or install in wallets, on bedside tables, or refrigerators. It is the object that is bought and sold, given away or inherited. Part of the power of things is that they can outlive us mere mortals, and that as they move through time and change location, their meanings change.”
Very often the material nature of the photograph will change over time as it is used, Nordström explained. If you know where it’s been you can often tell what it has meant to people. For example, in a flea market you will often find a photograph that on the back has black fuzzy circles on the corners. That tells you that at one point it was kept in an album and we know how people used albums. This informs the meaning of the photograph. A photograph that has been folded in half to fit into an envelope tells you that someone cared about it enough to send it to someone.
Ideas in Things features a contemporary daguerreotype, a platinum print, albumen prints, tintypes, a monoprint collage, and gelatin silver prints, some with applied color or overwriting. In some cases, information written or stamped on the back of the paper photographs will be visible. Visitors will see things for the most part that are not simply flat pieces of photographic paper. The images will have been altered in some way or presented in some way that emphasizes their materiality, in such a way that those looking won’t confuse the image and the object. In some cases, information written or stamped on the back of the paper photographs will be visible.
For example, the Steichen photographs have instructions for the retoucher written on them. “These are obvious marks of their use and an interesting example of a technology we don’t use anymore, but, as it happens, the marks are beautiful,” Nordström said. “The marks themselves really have an aesthetic quality that no one would have recognized when they were made but that we appreciate. You would not do that with a digital object; you simply make the changes and send the corrected file.”
“I think one of the reasons photographs are so seductive is that the images look like truth and it is really easy to forget that they are not,” Nordström said. “The thingness of these photographs is something we can all delight in, enjoy and appreciate. But there can also be a lot of information in the material qualities of the photograph.”
Nordström chose the Julia Margaret Cameron photograph for Ideas in Things because it is printed from a broken plate and serves to remind exhibition visitors she was working with glass negatives. “But the marks of the broken plate, the shatter marks in the glass are evident in the print,” Nordström said. “And that is really beautiful. We appreciate the pleasures of ruins.”
Ideas in Things is included with museum admission. For more information, visit eastmanhouse.org or call (585) 271-3361.