Public Eyes

The internet has changed how we look at photos. Can it also help us reimagine the history of photography?

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But did the people of India really wish to be photographed?
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“Whatever person you decide to photograph,” Antonino Paraggi says in Italo Calvino’s 1955 short story, Adventures of a Photographer, “you must go on photographing it always, exclusively, at every hour of the day and night.” He adds, “Photography has a meaning only if it exhausts all possible images.” Antonino becomes an amateur photographer obsessed with documenting almost every moment of his life. When he begins to date the lovely Bice, this obsession becomes even more acute as he turns his lens upon her every move from surveillance shots along street corners to private moments waking up in bed.

For Calvino, Antonino reflects a kind of alienated figure whose tragedy rests in his increasing longing for more and more images, even as Bice leaves him and his friends abandon him. Slowly, he devolves into an isolated madness taking photographs of “everything that resists photography,” such as the corners of rooms, or radiator pipes, or even images in newspapers. Photographs of photographs, he thought, might just be the ultimate kind of photograph. He envies the news photographers and their constant attention at capturing every candid moment. And then he has an idea. Antonino accumulates all the image of Bice he took over the months they were together, and cuts them into pieces, spreading them out over the yellowed pages of newspapers that have piled up in his apartment, ignored by his obsessions. “Perhaps true, total photography,” he thinks, “is a pile of fragments of private images, against the creased background of massacres and coronations.” And with this thought, he turns on a spotlight, and photographs the piles of photographic fragments lying across the published headlines and news images. As Calvino concludes the story, “Antonino realized that photographing photographs was the only course he had left.”

There is of course something prescient in Calvino’s story about a man’s obsession for photographing. Can we today imagine any image-making as a symptom of some psychological disturbance? I have been intrigued by this story for years, and particularly by the way Antonino is so dependent on his camera to define his place in the world. He can, by the end, only think through the images he photographs. The question that pervades the story, and that never gets resolved: how do we know the world beyond our photographs?

This is a question that nagged at me as I wandered the New York Public Library’s recent exhibition, “Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography.” On the show’s opening day, the library’s marble lobby was filled with holiday decorations. Crowds of tourists hovered around the towering Christmas tree, taking photos of the friends and family posing near it. As I walked around the other side of the tree to get to the exhibition, another group was doing the same thing from a different angle. Navigating these photographic moments (because of course we are often navigating cameras these days either to hide or be seen), I found the exhibition entrance. Blocking the doorway was a man arching backwards, camera phone in hand, taking a photograph of himself in the huge mirror that was angled downward just above the entrance. On the floor, written backwards in black letters was the phrase: “I am in the public eye” with the tag #publiceyenypl underneath. When you looked up into the mirror, you could capture yourself, framed by the phrase, in a readymade selfie. I watched as more and more patrons stopped at the doorway, looked up, and took a photo. Later, when a docent brought through a group of patrons for a tour of the show, he reminded them to tweet the image if they would like. This was the first exhibition I have seen where you are asked to turn yourself into a photograph before you look at the photographs.

This entrance encourages you to take photographs throughout the show. At one point in my wanderings of the 500 images from the library’s vast archive, I was next to a young woman who held her camera phone in the air like some kind of sensor, photographing photographs and text panels that caught her eye without really spending time in front any one photograph. I wondered if she would look at the images later. Or, perhaps this was the only way she could experience this show, moving about and photographing in the silent and casual way our camera phones allow.


Left: Ethan Levitas (American, born 1971). “Frame 21,” from Photographs in 3 Acts. Dye coupler print, 2012. NYPL, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. © and reproduced courtesy of Ethan Levitas Projects. Right: Featured Instagram snapshots from the “Public Eye” exhibition. Screenshot from exhibition site on December 19, 2014.

Or perhaps this was just a way of managing a show that feels so overwhelming. “There is almost too much to see, isn’t there?” a patron behind me blurted out to her companion. It takes a lot of energy and concentration to look at 500 photographs in a short amount of time, clustered as they are in the spacious single room of this exhibition. I explained the show to a friend as like walking into the Instagram. Photographs surround you, including works from the early 19th century to more contemporary photographers and artists. The show’s three sections — Photo Sharing, Street View, and Crowd Sourcing — borrow from our contemporary language of image-making to reimagine the history of photography.

You encounter iconic work from the very beginning of the exhibition, starting with Eadweard Muybridge’s expansive panorama of San Francisco from 1878, constructed out of 13 singular images he took from one of the city’s highest hills and pieced together to form a image over 17 feet long. There are other less grand photographs here as well, such as two small prints by Eugène Atget, who documented a changing Paris in the late 19th century, and from his student and archivist, the American Berenice Abbott, who bought Atget’s collection when he died in the 1920s. She did her own documentation of a changing New York in the 1930s, capturing a collage-like cityscape of older architecture and neighborhoods set against art deco’s frenzy of new buildings and skyscrapers. There are a number of photographs illuminating the Farm Security Administration photography project of the Depression era that documented the experiences of dislocation and poverty. Walker Evan’s Alabama sharecroppers and Dorothea Lange’s Oklahoma migrants reflect each photographer’s effort to turn poverty into image, suffering into something to witness.

What you notice in the historical movements of this show is how much the act of photographing has turned from public vision to private realities. Early works here rest often on travels. The 19th century French archeologist Désiré Charnay photographed ancient ruins in Mexico and the Yucatan. Maxime du Champ’s stark images of ruined temples and building facades from his many trips to Egypt, Palestine and Syria, shimmer in their distance and realism. Near these images sit American photographer Carleton Watkin’s expansive views of Yosemite in the 1860s. And just a few photographs from these we encounter two iconic 20th century images of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s German industrial silos from 1968, looking stoic and solemn. It is unclear how the Becher’s industrial countryside fit into the street views. This confusion underscores the shows frenetic movement across geographies and time periods. While the organization is clearly a walk through time with each section of the show, there is an unacknowledged history of interests and intents by the photographers here — an intent that defines what and how we are asked to see the world they present us.

Consider one of the first works in the Crowd Sourcing section: John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye’s book People of India. The book presents over 400 images of India. The particular page we look at is of three “low cast Hindoos” standing against a stone wall, holding roughly hewn sticks, and gazing into the camera looking uncomfortably confused. Watson and Kaye began this project in 1868, ten years after British rule was established in India. The photographs, the exhibition text tells us, were “taken by a dozen different photographers most of whom were government and military officials.” What are we to make of this historical fact? How much did these men wish to be photographed, I wondered? The history of photographs, this show suggests, is simply an archive of images. But we know that this history is also one of perspective. A photograph not only shows us what is in front of the camera but can also tell us something about the person behind it.

The show is best when it reminds us of how photography evolved into physical objects for a mass audience. The carte de visite, for example, turned the paper image into an exchangeable object, a calling card of the 1860s and 1870s. Many of the more fashionable New Yorkers and Parisians had portraits of themselves made in a studio, posture and dress conveying their status or importance, and ordered them in bulk to pass out to friends. There is also a display of stereograph cards, those twin imaged postcards that, when looked at through a stereoscope, blended the two images to create a 3D effect. A glass display wall of nearly 100 of such cards illuminates the range of subjects of this popular middle-class hobby from domestic scenes to travel. Often publishers would print them in series. On the back of one card displaying a colorized view of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the advertisement reads: “around the world without leaving your home — just like being there” and lists the series including Japan to Russia and different parts of the US. The photographic stereographs turned the lure and sensation of travel into a photographic experience. But they also brought the experience of travel into your living room, one image at a time.

Contemporary works in this show focus on how the camera turns your private space into public spectacle. Mary Alpern’s “No. 9” 1994 from her “Dirty Windows” series captures the shadowing figures of sex workers and clients in a after-hours club near Wall Street. Alpern used the view from a friend’s window into the club to create this series. Arne Stevenson “Neighbors” series also plays with the Rear Window theme, pointing his camera into the large windows of his neighbor’s apartments near his Tribeca studio. Never capturing the face of these people, Stevenson gives us only the backs or blurring outlines of the individuals caught in the windows. And Ethan Levitas’ large format color prints are captured by elevating his camera in front of active surveillance camera’s, interrupting the flow of film footage in that split second, and capturing a view that feels both commanding and voyeuristic at the same time. This transformation of the private into the public through photographic practices is a compelling element in this show. But, as the images of 19th century India make clear, surveillance of private lives through photography has a long history. Being in the public eye has not always been a choice. And even the contemporary works raise questions about what the photograph allows us to see or understanding.

One of the last works I encountered in this show was by the German artist Joachim Schmid, who has been working with found photographs for decades. In The Showbag Book, Schmid pieces together discarded photographs he finds in public places around Berlin to create fascinating fragments of what he terms photograph works. In the 1990s Schmid started the Institute for the Reprocessing of Used Photographs, claiming that there were billions of used photographs “improperly stored in homes and business” and offering a place to properly dispose of such photography. “Few people in the world have looked at more photographs” than he has, he said in an interview a few years ago. Schmid’s art simmers with a critique of consumer excess. In his recycled and found photographs, private image turn into public spectacles without context or background. They are images without history. His photo works attest to photography’s diminishing power to arrest the world, to know something from any one photograph. He once claimed that he looked at 10,000 photographs in one day alone. I can’t image what he might have felt like at the end of that day.

The surfeit of images in this show is perhaps purposeful. Amidst the many photographs, the differing motives and intents of the photographers, the varied genres and places and time periods, we are left much like Antonino, surrounded by fragments of private and public realities, and filled with a yearning to take more photographs. • 5 January 2015

James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.
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