Inside the Museum: Photography at MoMA 1960 – Now


That a history of an institutional collection should reflect the aims of that institution is no surprise, indeed it could hardly do otherwise, but the very nature of this particular institution as one of the first to have had a photography department and collect photography in a systemic fashion gives its position on the subject an air of authority that lesser institutions can’t claim. The recent publication Photography at MoMA: 1960 – Now is a survey of the collection in those years and gives a breakdown of its acquisitions in a manner that is as much polemic, at least implicitly, as it is just a straightforwardly historical account. Given that there were no established standards within museums for collecting photography, it has been the case that the personalities of the successive heads of the photography department at MoMA have held what might seem like a disproportionate influence on how the very idea of photography was framed by the collection. Beaumont Newhall promoted an art-historically oriented account of photography, perhaps seeking to establish a concrete lineage for this arriviste medium. By contrast, Edward Steichen, sought to redirect the spaces of the museum and the collection to the brash dynamism of the magazine page, typified by the post-war sentiments of Look and Life, a programme that reached its apogee with the (in)famous exhibition, The Family of Man.

In the time-frame of this survey, the first of three proposed editions beginning in the present and moving back to the foundation of the photography department, the emphasis on the tastes of individual directors begins – and in many ways, ends – with John Szarkowski. This isn’t a strictly chronological look at the MoMA collection, but is organized thematically, seeking to uncover the ‘family resemblance’ between different, though generally not unrelated works. Nonetheless, Szarkowski comes first, if only because of how these thematic sections are ordered; his directorship inaugurates the present conception of the photography department and his vision of the medium, even as one accepts or rejects it, forms the starting point for this survey, with the conception of the photograph as an individual vision operating according to the specific constraints that define the medium – a position that Quentin Bajac in his introduction, somewhat uncharitably, but not inaccurately, compares to the dogmatic high modernist theorizing of Clement Greenberg. The point of comparison rests on their (apparently) shared insistence that artistic output should be driven by – and understood in terms of – the specific values of a given form. Szarkowski defined these for photography, just as Greenburg did for painting.

It has long been fashionable to criticise Szarkowski and his insistence on the use of photography in accordance with its own inherent values, at least as he understood them. Many post-modern critics in the 80s and 90s made careers on this basis and much of it was justified, in the same way that the critique of post-war humanism in the Family of Man was justified as attacking a reductive and hegemonic worldview, indeed one that actively supressed the experiences of those members of the ‘human family’ who didn’t quite fit the image, in one way or another. With the benefit of a bit more distance, it seems clear that Szarkowski’s ideas about the medium, now largely forgotten in fact, haven’t aged quite so well as his taste. Those photographers he championed were, in the end, just too idiosyncratic in their work to be contained by any particular way of thinking about photography, even one as medium-specific as Szarkowski’s. However narrow that taste might have been at times and however unsustainable individual taste might be as a rubric for a museum collection, there is no doubt that much of this work, collected in the first section of the book, is significant and continues to exert a pull on the direction of the medium. Unusually, this first section, titled New Documents and Beyond, terminates in 1980 (the story is picked up later), while most of the other sections continue on to the deliberately undefined ‘now’ of the title.[i]

The rationale for this division is rather hard to grasp, seeming only to serve some preconception about the work and about the medium than any apparent divergence in the immediate concerns of the featured artists. Similarly, the inclusion (or exclusion) of particular works and artists in any one of the different thematic sections is often based on some coincidence of style or subject-matter more so than any coherent reading of the work in question. For instance, the placement of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work in the Deconstructing Photography section alongside such artists as Ed Ruscha and Michael Snow seems to be more because of a formal commonality in terms of their serial approach than from any comparable urge on the Becher’s part to ‘deconstruct’ the medium. In fact, their lineage within the tradition of New Objectivity in German art places them far more clearly – and justifiably – in the reconsideration of photography’s status as document that comes later in the book, and their preoccupation with serialism makes far more sense there as well, precisely because it is grounded in the use of photography as a mode of information, however ambiguous. This concern isn’t as trivial as it might at first appear – it also points to a deeper malaise with this particular book and with institutional histories in general.

It is – or at least should be – obvious that the assumptions and biases that one brings to the practice of history inevitably shape it, so that a particular understanding of photography as a medium will result in a particular kind of history. Of course, it is not always clear what those assumptions are, because the tendency has been to treat the history of photography as a self-contained entity, and this holds true regardless of whatever the bias of the historian might be. As a result, historical accounts tend to obscure the assumptions about photography that shape them, appearing as a consequence of the medium’s evolution over time rather than being merely a particular narrative of that same evolution. In truth, there are probably as many histories as there are accounts of that history and none should be taken as representing ‘photography’ as such. By the same token, what might be called ‘institutional histories’ are not exempt from this process and, in fact, they often sit right at the heart of it, given that most of the access to the history of photography, as well as the accounts of it, are structured around particular institutional collections. The specific understanding of what exactly photography is that must underlie any collection is naturalized by being presented as an account of photography itself – the institution becomes the medium.

These difficulties are exemplified by the conceptual apparatus of the book, as can be clearly seen in the section entitled Constructed Narratives: Between Snapshot and Staged Photography, the introduction for which is provided by David Campany, who has elsewhere proven himself the master of discursive rather than didactic histories. The aims of the MoMA survey are largely inimical to such efforts, however. By creating a particular conceptual schema to join the incongruous material contained in this section, the values of the institution are being privileged over those that define the work of the artists themselves. How else to explain the conjunction of such artists as Nan Goldin and Jeff Wall together under the umbrella of ‘narrative’ when their respective use of that term is so completely – and obviously –  different? This is not just a reading of the material intent on finding conspiracy where none exists; how we organize the history of photography as a medium is a fundamental question and one that is mostly obscured by this book because of an unwillingness to separate the history of photography at MoMA from the history of photography as such. These assumptions inevitably shape our understanding of the medium and have to be treated critically, even if we do recognize the importance of the institution’s collection and the efforts of the authors to give it some shape in this survey.

The biases of the institution are also revealed by considering the pattern of its acquisitions. There is surely some significance in the fact that the number of recent works to be found in the final section (Experimentation: From Darkroom to Laptop) often outnumbers work of a similar period in the preceding sections by a not inconsiderable margin. This is particularly telling in the section that continues the story of the so-called document in photography from 1980 to the present, a chronological anomaly already noted above. Whether or not this emphasis on newer works in the final section reflects the preference of earlier curators for more ‘traditional’ work (against the broader tastes of their successors) is an open question, one not always sufficiently addressed in the accompanying texts. It might also be the case that the effect of digital technology on both the practice and understanding of photography has some influence here and that the museum is simply being conscientious in attempting to account for this changed landscape as it is perceived by different artists. But, once again, we have a situation whereby the institutional account of photography dominates any other reading we might care to make of the history that is being surveyed; those historical trends become interchangeable with how they are represented within the institution.

While it might seem rather heavy-handed to keep insisting on this distinction, which to some may not even appear that meaningful, (this is, after all, a survey of an institutional collection), I would argue it is warranted precisely on that basis. It is hardly creditable either that the writers and curators are unaware of the critical debates that have long surrounded the process of forming an official ‘canon’ for a medium like photography. It is, in this instance, a matter of good policy to ignore the basic truth that there can be no photographic history as such, but just a history among others, which by definition excludes as much – or more – as it encompasses. There is no doubt that the book is an accomplished and worthwhile production, lavishly illustrated with often seminally important photographic works, which are important almost by definition because they are included here (though many of them would be important anyway). The difficulty, however, comes in trying to separate the importance of the work itself from the status conferred by the canonical structure of the book and the museum collection that it represents. Any institutional history tends to appear definitive, both on the basis of institutional prestige, which is significant in this case, and, more importantly, to the extent its account of the medium’s history is treated as the singular narrative by which that history can be understood.

But it is worth remembering that photography inside the museum is not all the medium is – or can be.


[i] The Deconstructing Photography section also terminates in 1980, presumably because the story is continued elsewhere, but this does not appear to merit a separate chapter.

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