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These are not recent events…

In August 2014, the curator and professor Karen Fiss and I began planning an exhibition on police violence in response to the murders of James Boyd in Albuquerque and Michael Brown in Ferguson. These two men were just the latest in a long list of men and women killed by law enforcement. They were victims of our endemic, toxic gun culture, and the militarization of the police. The exhibition “Necessary Force: Art in the Police State” addresses the systemic forces in our history and our society that continue to violate civil rights. The works in the exhibition addressed a range of issues, including police brutality, surveillance, and imprisonment, poverty, gun violence, racial profiling, as well as the power of collective protest and collective healing. Over the next thirteen months, we would text each other as more murders were recorded in grainy footage up until the show’s opening on September 11, 2015. Also, by that date, the Albuquerque police officers who shot and killed James Boyd, who was a mentally-ill, white homeless man, in March 2014 had received a hearing for second-degree murder. The accessibility of these images on the news, on phones and laptops, made our task as curators almost futile. How could an art show do anything worthwhile about this nightmare and how dare it even try? We included work by filmmakers, painters, sculptors, photographers, data artists, and graphic designers. We focused on these contemporary artists whose work was in direct dialogue with photographic documentation of police violence for two reasons: the University of New Mexico Art Museum’s stunning photography collection had a rich cache of photographs from the Civil Rights era and the centrality of violent imagery in our current visual culture. The exhibition emphasized the role of photography in shaping public opinion and how we remember our shared history. While many of the exhibiting artists had experienced racial profiling and even violence from law enforcement, it was through the media that all of them had learned of important incidents in this history from Birmingham to Ferguson. 

Photography has always had the power to elicit outrage and inspire activism. In mounting “Necessary Force,” we wanted to bring objects together that would slow down viewing in order for the museum visitor to become conscious of their looking and how much images manipulate us. The twenty-four-hour news cycle and social media offer an endless onslaught of images that are beautiful and terrifying. The media inflames our emotions and then eventually desensitizes them through the very sensationalism of constantly seeing that which can never be unseen. We were fortunate to have photo and film work by such artists as Charles Moore, Danny Lyon, David Taylor, Nafis White, Hito Steyerl, the collective ASCO and Trevor Paglen that directly addressed, and in some cases even used, public surveillance in critiques of recorded violence and inhumane acts. Josh Begley’s Profiling. Is. (Locations of Concern and Information of Note) from 2014 and Trevor Paglen’s Drone Vision each focuses on the pervasive role of surveillance, public and private, in every facet of our lives. Begley presents texts, maps, and photographs produced by the Demographics Unit of the New York Police Department in an installation that covers an entire wall. This conglomeration of information is from publicly-accessible files of surveillance of Muslim-owned businesses and gathering places right after 9/11. Paglen’s video is a montage of video recorded by a security drone in a gated, suburban community that reveals how normalized such surveillance of everyday life now is. 

Nafis White’s installation of photographs entitled Phantom Negro Weapons (2014) gained the most responses from visitors during the four-month run of the exhibition. This installation was twenty-four color photographs in a grid where each numbered photo was a close-up of a lone object on a stark white background. The polished aesthetic of advertising photography draws one into the sharp edges of the cigarette pack, the high gloss of the cellphone, or the bright greens and reds of the Skittles package. The objects are pleasant and one immediately observes them as a consumer until one consults the binder on a stand in front of the images. The binder provides the key to the numbers next to each photograph; each object represents evidence from a wrongful death. The cellphone, the wallet, the headphones, the set of keys, each was mistaken for a gun held by a black man or woman resulting in their death. They were Phantom Negro Weapons conjured by long-held prejudices and widely-disseminated negative stereotypes that present people of color as threatening, dangerous—and armed. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of curating this exhibition was our discussions with artists. Nafis White had also considered casting each of these phantom weapons into clay but we encouraged her to go with the directness of the photographs. We asked both Dread Scott and Hank Willis Thomas about work they felt would fit into the exhibition’s themes and they sent us a few options. In Amelia Falling, Thomas has printed on a framed mirror the iconic image by Spider Martin that captures the injured Amelia Boynton supported by two others. Police struck Boynton during the Pettis Bridge march. The mirror allowed anyone standing in front of the piece to become part of the scene. In the installation, Otabenga Jones and Associates’ We Did It For Love, (2015), an upside-down police car with audio of television shows and comedy acts about police violence, was directly in front of Amelia Falling which made its chaotic scene even more realistic. Any viewer saw themselves standing in between the three marchers and the police car. These museum-goers definitely experienced what Thomas often strives for in his use of historical imagery: “I think it’s important to figure out to what degree we can put ourselves in historic moments. I like the idea of implicating ourselves in the things that we’re looking at, not just gawking or gazing. Even for a brief second, we’re experiencing something of it. We are in a continuous dialogue with history and culture via photography.” Given the protests around the country in 2014 and 2015 (including my hometown of Baltimore after the killing of Freddie Gray), the presence of the police car in the gallery blurred those lines between news coverage and lived experience. In the installations of We Did It For Love, the artists have included police scanner audio from the unrest in 1965 Watts and news coverage of protests in 2014 Ferguson. After over a hundred days of national protests in cities and small towns in 2020, more Americans know this convergence of televised and lived actions of resistance more than ever.

This exhibition was one response to the outrage felt around the country. We believed that the educational programming was as important as the art. Embracing that this exhibition was on a university campus, we had a reading area filled with books on some of the infamous events that were the subject matter of the artwork, such as the beating of Rodney King, the murder of Amadou Diallo, and Bloody Sunday. Information on organizations concerning incarceration, homelessness, mental health, immigration, legal counseling, and discrimination was available at the front desk and a day-long community forum with round tables on these topics provided pathways to action for museum visitors. The artists in Necessary Force paid homage to the legacy of Danny Lyon’s and Charles Moore’s photos of resistance. The exhibition title itself reflected the urgency that these men and women felt to act through their art-making. As one student attendant noted in the first week after the opening, ‘There is a lot of death here and that’s a lot to sit with all day.’ Whether it was the police tape around the forty-one bullets police discharged to kill Diallo when he reached for his wallet in the doorway of his own apartment in Max King Cap’s We Own the Night (2001), Mel Chin’s live nightstick/microphone Night Rap (1993) or the brutal black-and-white images of protesters being tear-gassed, in chokeholds and abused by fire hoses, the representation of bodily harm was in every part of the gallery. Museum Educator Traci Quinn ensured that staff received training on how to handle the public regarding such intense and controversial content and staff were able to rotate more frequently. The contemporaneity of the show’s content brought a record number of visitors and visitor donations. It also made this exhibition very personal. Local teachers brought classes, sometimes more than once. Albuquerque residents who had never before stepped onto campus came to see art that spoke to their experiences and topics they cared deeply about. 

The artist’s book Shot and Killed (2015) by Kara Tromp, who was a former UNM student, consisted of twenty-eight photographs the artist had taken of locations where police officers had killed someone between January 2010 and December 2014 in Albuquerque. Each photograph had a name and the date of the shooting as its title. Tromp eliminated humans to emphasize the permanent absence of each victim. Some of these locations were where the victim lived, others were just where they were when their fatal encounter with police occurred. The banality of an empty driveway or a street corner so clearly familiar made one recognize that such injustices occur all around us. Originally, the artist had planned to also wheatpaste posters of these photographs around the city, simultaneously displacing these crime scenes and memorializing the lives lost through reproduction. Dread Scott’s video recorded his performance of violence. The video documents his On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide (2014). This performance of the artist being fire-hosed was in direct conversation with the images Moore took of Birmingham firefighters hosing well-dressed Black teenagers in 1963 during the very successful “Project C.” The curatorial pairing of the video next to that photograph at the start of the exhibition provided an important framework for the entire show. Scott’s struggle against the high-pressured stream emphasized the terror of transforming a tool municipalities use for good into a weapon to break the spirits and bones of young, non-violent activists. Bridging decades (and maybe centuries), Scott essentially animated the drenched youth huddled on the pavement in the photograph. As with all of the work in the exhibition, these juxtapositions made the viewer pause, do a double-take, and question just how far have we come with regards to equity and justice. 

Necessary Force opened in a year that saw the first Black president of the United States commemorate the fiftieth anniversaries of numerous Civil Rights events. The contrast between these media opportunities and the weekly barrage of cellphone recordings of assaults and murders of young Black men and women by law enforcement was striking. One could literally watch one right after the other within one fifteen-minute news segment. This televised dissonance grounded the exhibition as it did so many of the artists in it. A distressed body is the focus of the photo by Lyon of National Guard soldiers arresting SNCC photographer Clifford Vaughs during a sit-in. Soldiers pull one arm, a leg, and his shirt while one of the seated protesters holds his other foot and while Vaughs supports himself with his other arm on the ground. His shirt is torn and his bareback exposed. The history and commerce of lynching photos inform this image: the terror, the mob, the torn clothing, the nudity, the onlookers. As Todd Gitlin described Lyon’s candid images of these confrontations, “Segregation deformed human life and the demonstrators meant to expose that deformation to the larger world and these photographs do that.”1

One cannot ignore that one SNCC photographer, Lyon, is documenting this assault of his fellow photographer, Vaughs, from just a few feet away. Did Lyon, who is white, fear he would be next? The power of their photographs to influence Northern audiences and legislators was feared by segregationists. These photographers were the eyes into the struggle for equality ripping the South apart. As Martin Berger writes in his book Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography (2011), “the photographs forced countless whites to grapple with how their reticence to promote civil rights had relegated blacks in the South to violent and segregated lives.”2. Many, including John F. Kennedy himself, attributed the passage of the civil rights bills to these images of violence against protestors. The steady publication of these photographs in newspapers and such magazines as Life kept steady pressure on legislators, and other government officials, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists knew this. In a section from It Was Only An Indian (1994), Charlene Teters made a life-size, three-dimensional installation of a crime scene photograph that showed police standing over the dead body of Larry Caruse who was killed in a shootout with police in Gallup, New Mexico. This image was on the front page of the local newspaper and inflamed protesters. 

The still from the video of Officer Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd was enough for me. It broke my heart that my children had seen the entire video many times. ‘It’s everywhere, mom— you can’t NOT see it,’ they told me. Photography enables anyone anywhere to bear witness. The history of visually recording violence against Black people who look like my family members is now a genre. Since May 25, 2020, many more people have witnessed that terror through a viral video and photographs. Mourning another Black life ended by a system that was built against it, they are now acting with the urgency that permeated Necessary Force.

Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category:

These are not recent events…

Dr. Kymberly Pinder is a Scholar, Curator and is currently the Acting President of Academic Affairs at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She was a professor and administrator for sixteen years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before coming to New Mexico where she was dean of the College of Fine Arts at UNM from 2012 until 2019. As a community arts scholar, Dr. Pinder has been committed to community engagement and interdisciplinary initiatives. Her efforts at the UNM Art Museum at UNM resulted in an annual “all-arts day” titled ArtUnexpected, and as interim museum director, she began the multi-city initiative, PhotoSummer to promote the programming around photography and curated the exhibition across NM.

Before and during her teaching career she worked in the education and curatorial departments in museums and galleries, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters in New York, and The Art Institute of Chicago. Dr. Pinder has been published in the Art Journal, Art Bulletin, and Third Text. She has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the humanities and the Mellon, Ford, and Henry Luce Foundations, among others.

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These are not recent events…

Historical Trajectory of Lens-Based Media

I will start with an assumption; all that came before in the history of photography prior to 2000, has only barely prepared us for all that lies ahead. We have the basic concept of ‘fixing’ an image or an event on media that can be duplicated and shared, first with only a few and now with millions. The ‘how’ however, has given way in importance to the ‘why’ and the ‘when’; practitioners of lens-based media, prior to 2000 were largely thought of as professionals – artisans or tradesmen or technicians who had to master their craft, even when engaged in making art. Mastering the ‘how’ was critical to the individual expression each practitioner sought; tied to the question of why am I creating this as well as the when you will get to see it. 

I don’t know if any of this is right, but this is my gut feeling about photography 20 years into the 21st century. There has been a decoupling of what came before and new constructs have taken their place. And when I refer to photography, I am really speaking about all lens-based media, especially those that fall under film and video. In our current moment they are often interchangeable, like putting on a different pair of shoes depending on the outfit you are wearing on a particular day; who do you want to be today?

In my personal prehistory of 21st century photography, there are 3 moments that stand out. Each significantly changed the how, the why, and the when, and each also brought changes to the people engaged in the process, both creator and recipient. 

–   The Leica

Photography and film existed well before 1924 but it was only after the invention of the Leica that the connection between man and machine began to truly change how we perceived the world around us. Small, loaded with film on a roll that could provide many exposures and held up to the eye with your hand, the distance between seeing and doing – the how – began to evaporate. We know the rest; the tool enabled the practitioners to create images in places many had never seen before and, with the help of the printing press, distribute to the world at an ever increasing pace. The new ‘how’ of the Leica helped create a new ‘why’ of storytelling and a new ‘when’ of sharing.

       – The Nikon F 

For much of my life, this second data point has been the one defining lens-based media creation; the 1959 invention of the Nikon F SLR. This design was not invented by Nikon but it was refined and hardened so that this camera became the tool of choice. It brought the eye directly into the lens and then made that lens almost infinitely variable. A photographer’s sight was now technologically superior to regular humans and as a result their ability to shape any society’s worldview was formidable. As 1959 gave way to the 1960’s, the Nikon was able to survive wars, earthquakes, hurricanes and social upheaval and it empowered photographers to wear it like armour. It also allowed the rest of us to understand the world by seeing it; good and bad, clearly through its Nikkor lens eyes.

The Nikon F still influences many cameras today even though most exchanged film for computer chips almost 20 years ago. Perhaps it is because the design and functionality are the height of perfection, or perhaps because for generations of ‘professional’ practitioners it is the last bit of familiar we can hold on to.

–  The iPhone

2007 is the moment when lens-based media prehistory merges with the present, with the invention of the iPhone. Even as little as 5 years ago it might have been considered heretical to include the iPhone in the history of photography; I don’t think anyone can make a case for that now. When Steve Jobs introduced it he highlighted its 3 most important features – it’s an iPod, a phone and an internet communication device. Even Steve Jobs did not fully grasp what he had unleashed on the world when he combined a simple camera with the internet – he changed the relationship between the ‘how’ and the ‘when’; I can easily take a picture or shoot a movie and share it with you right now. The ‘why’ becomes infinite – to show you my new child, my last meal, or a revolution happening in real time.

The rise of iPhone photography was inevitable although many of us didn’t connect the dots right away. We were still thinking about this in an analog way with many fixed variables. Moore’s Law states that we can expect the speed and capability of our computers to increase every couple of years, and we will pay less for them. The iPhone was the device that truly transformed the camera into a lens-based computer; one whose capabilities would increase quickly and change not only what we create but what we do after the moment of creation.

In 2012, writing for the Poynter Institute, I naively stated that, “At NPR, our multimedia team has decided to treat our iPhones like cameras; just like our (Canon) 5D’s, just like Cartier-Bresson’s Leica. Our standard go-to camera is still a digital SLR but there are times when the iPhone is a better choice.” What I didn’t understand was that Moore’s Law took this decision out of our hands; the evolution of lens-based media became tied to the evolution of the iPhone and its progeny on the day that Steve Jobs introduced it with only a passing reference to its camera. He did correctly state, however, that the iPhone was “a revolutionary product that changes everything”.

The history we are making today is inextricably tied to the fact that almost everyone has a high quality lens-based media creation and consumption device with instant communication capabilities in their pocket. This level of wide spread saturation can only lead to an ever increasing number of new ways to use these ‘cameras’ while they evolve at an ever increasing rate. Today will become history and history will become prehistory faster and faster.

The Role of Lens-Based Media in Contemporary Culture

  • Rise of “The Creators”

Lens-based media creation used to fit mostly into a few easy to understand categories. You had family photos and home movies. You had amateurs and hobbyists creating photography and films not for money but with the spirit of the professional. There were artists using both media to make a living and for creative expression in books, on gallery walls or in film and video festivals. Finally you had the professionals who derived their income from working in the press, television, or film industry, often tailoring their personal vision to the needs of the client or an organization.

Stating the obvious, these distinctions are very hard to find anymore; blurred, smugged, and turned into something unrecognizable to many. Today we have ‘Creators’, people versed in the tools of lens-based content creation and distribution who may work for a company, for themselves or just do their thing for art and love and internet fame. What makes them different is that they can be any or all of these things and easily morph between them at any time. The connector for all of them, and for society as a whole is that our appetite for content consumption has tilted heavily in favor of visuals – news, music, games and personal communication. The chicken and egg of the 21st century might be whether the easy content creation tools have made visuals the dominant media or is it our desire for more visuals that fueled the development of better, easier tools and distribution.

Creation and consumption in the early 2000’s was a tale of polar opposites. Traditional print publications began to collapse and television and film moved from appointment viewing to on demand. Flickr, in 2004, became the first successful photo sharing site; more photo album then living collection, but it tested the pre-iPhone waters of ‘instant’ visual storytelling for an audience. Instagram’s one to many photo platform was built for the iPhone generation in 2010 and dominates this landscape 10 years after its creation. Instagram combined creation with consumption in such a seamless way that we now take it for granted that every new thing must let us do both.

The 2016 new thing, TikTok, solidifies the ground around anyone becoming a creator by lowering the bar on what creation means. It takes a page or a scroll from Snapchat the 2011 variant on visual creation and sharing that emphasized the temporary and the imperfect. Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel said “Snapchat isn’t about capturing the traditional Kodak moment. It’s about communicating with the full range of human emotion – not just what appears to be pretty or perfect.” ‘Authentic’ is the word most often used in this context; today’s creators are at their best when what they create looks easy and real enough to have you think you too could do it. Again, these new tools have changed our relationship to what we are creating, what we are consuming and why we choose to do either. They also make the definitions of creator and consumer insignificant; we are all becoming both, providing visual programing of our lives and watching the lives of others in a deconstructed media landscape.

  • The Eye of Social Justice

Jacob Riis’ tenement photos, liberated Holocaust survivors, photographs of lynching parties, fire hoses and police dogs used against peaceful protesters by Bull Connor, the assainations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the death of Stephen Biko, Tank Man. Photographs that documented hate and fueled movements.

For as long as lens-based media has existed it has documented humanity at its best and at its worst. Death on Civil War battlefields were some of the first images to move into the mainstream; the ongoing procession of the moments mentioned above is only accelerating with our new tools and the belief that we are each capable of being our own network broadcaster; one to the world for good or evil.

The 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King is often cited as the first ‘viral’ video of this kind; capturing often hidden violence and bringing it into the light of day. Many thought that one video would change things; almost 30 years later we are still watching it, only sped up, live streamed and on a never ending loop. Differences? The perpetrators film themselves now or are filmed by legions of smartphone wielding bystanders. Just in the last few years we’ve had a police shooting live streamed as well as the mass murder of 51 Muslims who were at prayer. And, of course we can not fail to mention the murder of George Floyd, filmed by both the police and dismayed onlookers, offering a multi-cam view of the murder as sophisticated as many ‘traditional’ broadcasts.

When I talked earlier about lens-based eyes getting closer and closer to the world and showing it to us faster and faster, we are also seeing it unmediated; no gatekeepers filtering the good from the bad. Where once Life or Look magazine or network television were able to balance what we saw heavily in favor of what was perceived as ‘good’ or ‘acceptable’. No such control exists anymore. Our lens-based culture, for that is what we live in now, feeds us reality faster than any of us can plan for or process. Yes, we have the fun dancing videos but we also have demonstrations and cries for justice streaming a thumb swipe away. If this feels arbitrary, it is. If it feels like there is no easy path forward it is because, in the words of the writer Willam Gibson, ‘there are no maps for these territories”. We can only hope that a better balance in how society behaves will be reflected in the ‘show’ we are all creating.

The Future of The Practice

  • Always New Technology

The next 50 years will not only be about the technology of lens-based media, but also about the people who use them to create and share, as well as for information, relaxation, and entertainment. Moving forward, those people are becoming one in the same. As our devices become smaller and more capable, we will find new places to take them and new things to do with them. Analog distinctions between video and still photography are already disappearing; just as the ease of switching between one or the other has increased, so too has the need to make a distinction decreased. For the dedicated artist or artisan one or the other may suffice, but for the majority of creators and consumers who are also the majority of us, we will move back and forth as the events of life unfolding in front of us dictate.

One currently evolving technology to keep an eye on; the path taking us from Google Glass to Snapchat Spectacles to whatever glasses Apple is currently working on. Putting an always ready camera and display next to your eye means capture and consumption almost at the speed of thought (or without thinking). Couple that with a real-time augmented reality flow and you can potentially bring other worlds directly to you or send them instantly out to others. The streaming show of your life becomes the news, becomes art, becomes social upheaval, becomes entertainment for the one or the many.

Throughout the history of photography and film that we now refer to as lens-based media, change driven by technology has been a constant. What will be different is the pace of change, as well as the universal nature of these tools. It’s not just professional needs helping to chart the future, it’s all of us.

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These are not recent events…

Keith W. Jenkins, Senior Director of Visuals for NPR, has been a manager specializing in visual storytelling for most of his career. After several years working as a staff photographer at both The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, Keith became the first Photography Director at the newly created website in 1996. In 1997 Keith was hired as the Photography Director at AOL where he worked for 3 years before returning to The Washington Post as Photography Editor for the Magazine and later Deputy Assistant Managing Editor for Photo and Picture Editor for the newspaper.

 Keith’s teams have earned Pulitzer, Emmy, Peabody, Murrow, World Press, and Webby awards for The Washington Post, NPR, and National Geographic. Keith first joined NPR in 2008 and spent 5 years setting up the Multimedia department before heading to National Geographic where he served as Director of Digital Photography and General Manager.

Keith has taught and lectured on digital and visual journalism at Georgetown University,  Syracuse University, Ohio University, and The Poynter Institute. As a photographer, Keith earned numerous awards and a portfolio of his early work is part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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Ann Thomas is Senior Curator of Photographs, at the National Gallery of Canada, and has on two separate occasions acted as Interim Chief Curator at the NGC. She has organized numerous exhibitions and installations and is the author of several catalogs and publications such as Lisette Model (1990); American Photographs 1900-1950 (2011) co-curated the exhibitions Fauna and Flora (2012) and curated Donald McCullin (2013), The Great War and the Persuasive Power of Photography (2014) and Luminous and True: The Photographs of Frederick H. Evans (2015). The Intimate World of Joseph Sudek (2016); The Extended Moment: 50 years of Collecting Photographs at the National Gallery of Canada (2018).

She is the curator, contributing author, and editor of Beauty of Another Order: Photography in Science, (1996). She has also authored a numbered of articles and essays– some of the most recent being Isabelle Hayeur: American Dreams: Desert Shores (2019) “A Tale of Two Schools: The New School for Social Research and the Photo League 1934-1955” published in Frame and Focus: Photography as a Schooling Issue. She has co-authored a number of publications and was a recipient of a three-month Getty Research Fellowship in 2011. Among various current projects, she is most excited about several independent research projects one of which will look at the impact of electricity on photography art as it relates to picture making and iconography.

In her capacity as Senior Curator of Photographs she is responsible for the development and interpretation of 19th, 20th century, and contemporary international photographs and related materials. She does research on specified aspects of the history of photography and related historical fields and organizes photographic exhibitions at the Gallery both from the collection and with external loans.

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The history of photography is marked by numerous milestones, many of them emerging from its complicated relationship to the changing definitions of what constituted a work of art. While these moments are too plentiful to itemize here, some defining instances in the medium’s history stand out more starkly than others–such as Alvin Langdon Coburn’s 1916 observation:

“Why should not the camera also throw off the shackles of conventional representation and attempt something fresh and untried? Why should not its subtle rapidity be utilized to study movement? Why not repeated successive exposures of an object in motion on the same plate? … Think of the joy of doing something which it would be impossible to classify, or to tell which was the top and which was the bottom!”1

Time will not diminish the significance of Coburn’s radical, albeit short-lived, foray into photographic abstraction. His extraordinary series of Vortographs are not only landmark images in the history of photography, they are eternally engaging objects of beauty.

Modernism inspired photographers to embrace a new iconography and to experiment with novel approaches to formal expression as did Postmodernism. In recent decades we have seen the appearance of camera-based artists, the Pictures Generation, and the New Topographics. While the philosophical wellsprings of Conceptual, Pop, and Minimalist art had an impact on photographic practices of the latter half of the 20th century, photographers did not feel the same pressure to legitimize their image-making by adopting stylistic conventions coming from contemporary art practices as did their late 19th century predecessors. This is in part because photography was an essential part of the contemporary artists’ toolbox in the 1960s, and not merely as an aide-memoire.

Since the late 1970s and 80s, we have witnessed ever-expanding boundaries of experimentation in photography. The explosion of imagery on the internet, advances in digital technologies, revelations of new micro and macrocosmic forms in scientific imaging have inspired departures into new forms of expression and transformed ways of visualizing portraits, landscape, and political commentary.

Narratives of a diaristic, typological, and political nature and even the portrait genre have adopted pictorial strategies of presentation ranging from casual (or self-consciously casual) arrangements of unframed snapshot images on gallery walls to formal grid arrangements, framed and hung in a specific order.

While the photographic image has a modest history of serving as an iconographic element, Erik Kessel’s installation Abundance raised the bar significantly when in November 2011, he unloaded on Foam’s gallery floor a million printed images that he had downloaded over 24 hours from Flickr, Facebook, and Google. Indeed, the profusion of photographic images both presented to us on gallery walls – and floors – and streamed at us, whether captured by analog or digital means, is not just a force to be reckoned with but an attribute of today’s image culture that museums need to adapt to.

It is also a source of inspiration for many contemporary artists. Installations by Moyra Davey, Steven Shearer, Ulrich Tillmans, Taryn Simon, and Geoffrey Farmer exploit the rich, seemingly bottomless reservoir of created and culled photographic images. This brings me to the question regarding museum collecting practices today. How do museums collect photographs in a way that ensures that the collection retains relevance as artistic practices and technologies change in time?

I would like to take the collection for which I had responsibility from 1994 to the present as an example, not because I consider it the ne plus ultra of museum collections but because I know it well and it also allows me to illustrate why I believe that photographic collecting in museums should be deep and broad. Also, I appreciate the foresight and determination of my predecessor the late James Borcoman applied to establish parameters for the collecting of photographs in 1967.

The National Gallery of Canada was the first National Gallery to collect photographs as art and at the beginning, it was assumed that the collecting pattern would follow that of painting and sculpture and that photographs would be acquired one print at a time – as single masterpieces. Had this been accepted as a founding principle the collection would not be a fraction of the resource it is today. Borcoman corrected this misapprehension by introducing his colleagues, the museum’s administrators, and its trustees to a new collecting reality.

Central to the several points that he made in presentations to the Board of Trustees was the need to respect photography’s distinctive nature, namely, that its reproducibility and the relative rapidity of image capture resulted in a more voluminous output by artists working in the medium. He persuasively argued for an appreciation of this to be reflected in the institution’s collecting of photographic images. Photographers might make thousands of prints in a career, he pointed out, and if the museum was to properly represent their contribution, it had to adopt a new collecting norm that applied to photography, its history, and the current practices around it. This would involve collecting a significant volume of images in a year. He also recommended that the work of major contributors to the medium is collected in-depth and that the collection be comprehensive, starting with the pre-history of the medium and including the work of today.

I was particularly struck by the wisdom of having implemented collecting strategies of comprehensiveness and in-depth representation when I set about selecting works for an exhibition The Extended Moment to celebrate fifty years of collecting photographs at the National Gallery of Canada in 2017.

The depth and breadth of the collection made it possible to show how the medium had evolved technically and conceptually. Starting with pairings of images by photographers working centuries apart, it was possible to trace the rich and complex story of image-making through photography. Étienne Léopold Trouvelot (1827-1895) and Hiroshi Sugimoto (b. 1948) for example, experimenting with electrical charges, or Gary Schneider (b. 1954) and Adrien Majewski (active France 1890s) exploring the direct thermographic exposure of the human hand on a light-sensitive plate.

The juxtaposition and counterplay of images from the past and of the present set up a visual conversation that underscored the mutual attraction to certain ideas and subjects even when the photographers were separated by tens of decades and working with different technologies, and processes. These works were displayed in proximity to one another.

The epic nature of photography from the new millennium became increasingly apparent during the selection of works for the final section of the exhibition, New Narratives. Photographers’ use of multiple images to create single works often in massive grids is another part of the medium’s complex syntax. This compositional structure had its origins on a more modest scale in an earlier decade. Sophie Ristelhueber’s parsing of 71 photographs, each measuring 100.6 x 124.8cm, in Fait 1992, took this narrative structure to new heights – and lengths! Likewise, Sammy Baloji’s masterful critique of colonial occupation in Essay in Urban Planning, – a more recent example – uses the grid as an effective pictorial schema. Then there were the extraordinary large-scale single works – another development of the last several decades. I realized, much to my regret, that while works by Stan Douglas, Lynne Cohen, Zhang Huan, Isabelle Hayeur, Andrew Moore, Nicolas Baier, and several others were included, there were many other major large-scale works that had to be dropped due to space restrictions.

The kind of foresight shown when establishing the collecting premises for photography, unfortunately, fell short when we planned intimately scaled Photographs and Prints and Drawings galleries for our new building in the early 1980s. Nothing had prepared us for the ambitious and compelling scale of works from the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Iconic works have been added to the bedrock of the collection: a Vortograph enriches the Gallery’s small but substantial collection of Coburn gum prints, a platinum print of Frederick Evans’ “Sea of Steps” fleshes out the holdings of his work acquired from Evans’ son in 1967 and the fine print of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is a showstopper. Building a collection of photographs that not only reflects diverse Canadian ethnicities but also a global identity has been a priority and a shared and consultative effort between three departments: Photographs, Contemporary Art, and Indigenous Art. Photographs are as much cultural artifacts as works of art or documents, and as we progress further into our new century it is important that our collections be enriched in breadth and depth, and that our exhibitions address and celebrate the medium’s diversity and complexity. Museum decision-makers who are often scholars from more traditional areas of art history may require gentle prompts regarding the need to collect widely and deeply in photography, as well as to plan generously for the storage and display of contemporary photographs.

Given the right opportunity, curators – and collectors – are builders and pioneers. They are also lifelong learners. As I leave the museum world I am profoundly grateful for having been generously supported in all three roles.