Friday, February 4, 2011

Presentation and Care of Photographs 101?

The topic of last night’s panel discussion in the Lubar Auditorium at the Milwaukee Art Museum was “presentation and care of photographs.”

That may not sound like the most exciting topic, but sparks flew from the beginning.

Zoe Strauss, a contemporary photographer, began by with the incendiary claim that “it’s the idea of the piece that’s the piece,” rather than the photographs themselves. While that’s a common conceptual artist’s conceit, she went on to show slides of her various cameras – which ranged from an inexpensive point and shoot to a top of the line DSLR – paired with images she’d made with each. Then she announced, “I don’t give a s**t which camera I’ve used.” She places equal value on the images made with all of them. (It was an amazingly refreshing thing to hear! I’ve been telling students for decades not to obsess about equipment – that cameras don’t take pictures; people do.) Strauss is known for displaying photocopies of her images on pillars underneath a freeway. To their credit, the three other panelists didn’t visibly blanch at her disdain of the preciousness of the original print or her ephemeral style of exhibition. In fact, they were up to the challenge. It was a provocative start to a stimulating discussion of the various ways to value photography.

Michael Foley, a gallerist from Foley Gallery in New York, followed Strauss. By contrast, his primary considerations, he said, are the quality of the materials used by the artist and the way the photographs are presented. His responsibility is to clients who want to invest in an artist’s work and the material worth and perceived longevity of the object is central to that end. But of course!

Although Nora Kennedy, a conservator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, did come down predictably on the side of maximum control of the environment to preserve precious artworks in the museum’s collections, not all of her responses were so predictable. She cited two works at opposite ends of photographic history as posing particular challenges. One was an unfixed and therefore fugitive – highly fragile – photogram by William Henry Fox Talbot, one of photography’s progenitors. It can never be shown to the public because it would simply disappear if exposed to light. The other was Jeff Wall’s enormous photographs that are constantly illuminated because a light box is part of the presentation. Those incredibly expensive images inevitably will fade. Knowing this, she said, when a collector or museum purchases a print/light box from Wall he provides a second print – and even keeps it in storage – as insurance against the day when it will need to replace the first. (Of course that just kicks the conservator’s can down the road, doesn’t it?)

Max Yela, a specialist in book arts at the UWM Libraries, wrapped up the panel. He pointed out the special – and natural – relationship that photographs and books have always enjoyed. But from his perspective when an artist’s book is the goal then the images become subordinate to the book itself.  Agreed. Of course books can and are made from a wide variety of materials, both stable and unstable, just like photographs.

A lively discussion followed the opening remarks. It centered on questions such as, what constitutes an original in photography – the negative/digital file, or the vintage print? What is the proper role of reproduction in the viewing experience? And, how can a reproduction accrue value?

To all such questions the consensus of the panel was unanimous: “it depends!”

As I see it, the problem stems from a museum’s dual – and contradictory – responsibilities. Yes, a museum must preserve and protect original artworks. Yes, a museum must make their collections accessible to the public. Yes, these two goals can be incompatible. The solution for the fugitive Fox Talbot print is obvious: it can only be seen in reproduction. Kennedy mentioned a recent exhibit of similarly fragile autochromes (early color photos) at the Metropolitan. The originals were on display for a week before replacing them with reproductions. Were viewers of the reproductions duped? Did they have a less satisfying experience of the exhibit than the lucky few who went the first week? Assuming the Met informed its audience and created unimpeachable reproductions – and I’m willing to bet on the Met to have done both – I don’t expect so.

Why does the idea of displaying reproductions of art works rankle so many art museum curators when other kinds of museums use the practice routinely? Not long ago the Milwaukee Public Museum exhibited an “authentic facsimile” of the Dead Sea scrolls without irony, apology – or public outcry. Are art patrons so much fussier?

Don’t get me wrong, I would never argue that a reproduction would be a proper substitute if the original is available and circumstances permit it to be displayed safely. But I wouldn’t be calling this Arts Without Borders if I were not flexible in my thinking about how art can be viewed. And again to their credit, the curator, conservator, and gallerist all agreed with Strauss that artists should be encouraged to create with whatever materials are available, archival or not.

Bring on the temporary and ephemeral!

Evolving Practices in the Presentation and Care of Contemporary Photographs was hosted by the museum’s Photography Council.

Please feel free to leave a comment and continue the discussion.

The presentation was videotaped and is available in segments on you-tube: click here.


  1. Nice re-cap of a great evening. This gave me new found faith in the panel discussion format.

  2. Great discussion for one who, alas, missed it.

    I must say though that reproductions hardly suffice where the art work is itself "sculpted" whether with brushwork, impasto or other marks of technique. I can't say whether or not that applies ever to photography, but I imagine that an original film print worked up in the darkroom would be hard to reproduce in all its subtlties, nuance and play.

  3. Thanks, Edee - I wasn't able to attend, so this recap is great. Perhaps you want to embed the YouTube videos to accompany your post?

  4. I did add a link to the you-tube video. Here it is again:

    Thanks for the suggestion.