Archive or Art?

By Przyblyski, Jeannene M. | Art Journal, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Archive or Art?


Przyblyski, Jeannene M., Art Journal


Police Pictures:The Photograph as Evidence. Exh. cat. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1997. Essays by Sandra Phillips, Mark HaworthBooth, Carol Squiers. 144 pp., ills. $24.95 paper.

Exh. schedule: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, October 17, 1997-January 20, 1998; Grey Art Gallery and Study Center at New York University, May 19-july 18, 1998.

Snapshots:The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present. Exh. cat. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998. Essay by Douglas R. Nickel. 95 pp., ills. $22.95 paper.

Exh. schedule: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 22-September 8, 1998.

The vexed relationship between the nonartistic applications of photography and the aestheticizing walls of the fine arts museum has a long history by now, related to the larger question of whether photography is art at all.1 Historically, such nagging uncertainty had something to do with anxiety about whether photography could ever rise to art's high standards. But it also has had much to do with fears about the perceived fragility of high culture in modem times, its erosions and increasing marginal status in the face of the rampant image proliferation enabled to no small degree by photographic technology. An authentically mass culture, fully documented and armed with camera-this might well have sufficed to put fear in the heart of any high culture maven, or guardian of the cultural-and political-status quo.2

But of course the deed went down somewhat differently. Rather than mass culture razing the museum's walls, the museum opened its embrace to photography. Increasingly in the 1970s and 1980s, photography departments were formed in such places as the Metropolitan Museum of Art; major international exhibitions of "primitive" photography were organized; new canonical figures emerged; postmodernism gave photography new conceptual status; and photography prices skyrocketed in the art market.3 Under these conditions, it's hardly surprising that the first resistance to photography's newfound place of prestige in the museum took shape as an institutionally based argument. The medium's historically utilitarian applications were considered in opposition to the aesthetic values of originality, unique vision, and formalist abstraction that the museum sought to bestow.4 Fundamental to revisionist writing on photography was an exploration of the political/aesthetic conditions of selective enlightenment under which photographs snapped by an amateur "Kodaker" or shot by a police technician might come to occupy the walls of the museum. Were these images best understood in an "exhibitionary" context, in which the high-rent gloss conferred by the museum/frame allowed the viewer to appreciate compositional and tonal values, the eccentricity of a captured moment, the uncanny ambiguity of an image out of sequence? Or did they belong in an "archival" context, in which their roles in classifying and comparing data, and thus facilitating the relationship between the construction of knowledge and the possession of power, were never permitted to lapse out of sight?s

These powerful critiques might have scared off any save the stoutest hearts, but the museum plots its own resistances. Most recently, curators at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art assembled two intelligent and beautifully produced exhibitions, self-conscious about revisionist interventions. Police Pictures staged an inquiry into the ways in which the creation of orderly photographic records in modernized criminal and judicial archives has been central to effectively regulating relations between deviant and compliant populations. Snapshots proposed an exploration of the modern disposition to spontaneously document individually lived lives with photographs that were slipped into (and have slipped out of the pages of the family album. The museum regards such projects as theoretically distinct but collectively ambitious parts of "a programmatic effort . …

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