Ideas in Things

From June 30, 2012 through October 21, 2012 in Project Gallery

George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film presents this summer a gallery of photographs that demonstrate their persistence as cultural artifacts and as vehicles 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, Clarissa T. Sligh, and Edward Steichen.

Ideas in Things looks at photographs as objects. Until the digital turn — with images existing as scans and electronic files — most photographs existed simultaneously as both images and objects. And, even now, it is as objects that photographs most fully enter our lives. The title of the exhibition is a reference to poet William Carlos Williams's famous phrase, “No ideas but in things.”

This exhibition, drawn from the collection of George Eastman House, is a small selection of art and other photographic objects that illustrate the way photographs live, move, and change over time in the material world we share with them.

“It is the object, not the image, that museums have traditionally kept, cared for, catalogued and stored,” said Dr. Alison Nordström, curator of Ideas in Things and 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, one may find at a flea market a photograph with black fuzzy circles on the corners of its back. Those markings reveal that at one point the photograph was kept in an album and this informs the meaning of the photograph. A photograph that has been folded in half to fit into an envelope tells 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, but rather images that have been altered or presented in a way that emphasizes their materiality — in such a way that those looking won’t confuse the image and the object.

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.”

Nordström chose the Julia Margaret Cameron photograph for Ideas in Things because it is printed from a broken plate and serves to remind 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.”

By including objects from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, Ideas in Things demonstrates the continuation of certain physical interactions that exemplify the lives of an object after it leaves the circumstances of its making.

“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,” Nordstrom 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.”

Edward Steichen (American, 1879-1973). [Therese Duncan, imitating classic pose(Diana the huntress) at the Acropolis], ca. 1935. Gelatin silver print.

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