Itinerant Languages of Photography

Graciela Iturbide
Mujer ángel, Desierto de Sonora, México, 1979

My second visit to the Princeton Museum went much better than my first. The Itinerant Languages of Photography exhibition is one of the rare shows which is about context almost more than the art on display. In this case, the entire point was about the changing meaning of the photos as the context they’re viewed in changes. The show also manages to focus a lot on Latin America in a way which allows the Latin America viewpoint to come though. After my experience with SFMOMA’s Photography in Mexico show, I certainly wasn’t expecting to see a museum on the East Coast use many of the same images and display them with so much more understanding of the context.

It was especially interesting to see this show on the heels of the creation vs. consumption discussion from earlier in the week. This show is about both creation and consumption, and how the democratization of both allows emerging countries and populations to think about and define themselves.

Marc Ferrez Brazilian, 1843–1923 Araucárias, Paraná, ca. 1884 (printed later) Gelatin silver print, 29 x 39 cm Gilberto Ferrez Collection, Instituto Moreira Salles Archive, Brazil
Marc Ferrez
Araucárias, Paraná, ca. 1884

The first part of the show focuses on photos collected and taken in Brazil during the late 19th century. Many of the collected photos show technological and scientific advancements and remind me of a 19th-century version of the internet.* Access to the cutting-edge and being able to show and share all this newness with others is the same thing which the internet allows us to do now.

*Minus all the porn. Which I don’t doubt was also collected. Much like every new transportation-related technological breakthrough gets a gun attached to it at some point, every new image-reproduction technology gets tested on naked women.

It’s the photos taken in Brazil—in particular those by Marc Ferrez—which I really liked though. Many of these photos show the emergence of national identity as defined by unique foliage and distinct coastlines.* This identity creates things to be proud of as Brazilians and to be traveled to as tourists.  Other photos remind me of the O’Sullivan photos in how they show the development—both potential and in-progress—of the land and hint at the economic potential of the country.

*It’s also interesting to see Rio without Cristo Redentor.

Gerónimo Hernández  Soldaderas on a Train Platform in the Buenavista Station, Mexico City, April 1912
Gerónimo Hernández
Soldaderas on a Train Platform in the Buenavista Station,
Mexico City, April 1912

The second part of the show was my favorite part. It focused on Mexico and the combination of national mythmaking caused by photographing the Mexican Revolution as well as the international dialog between Mexican photographers and international ones. This is the part which, in one room, completely blew me away and showed me how much of a missed opportunity the SFMOMA show* really was.

*I actually can’t recall any revolutionary photos even in that show.

The photos of the Mexican Revolution are probably the best example of everything this exhibition is trying to say. These are national icons—especially the soldadera and Zapata images—which not only came to represent both domestic and international mexicanismo but which are continuously recontextualized and reappropriated in Mexico for whatever new cause—political, commercial, or artistic—comes up.

In addition to prints* of the images, the exhibition has samples of the continual recycling and references. Each time the image gets used for something new, its mexicanismo increases. It’s fascinating to see how the imagery continues to evolve and be relevant.

*Too much to say about this in an aside comment like this so I’ve moved it to a footnote of sorts.

Graciela Iturbide Cementerio (Cemetery), Juchitán, Oaxaca, 1988
Graciela Iturbide
Cementerio (Cemetery), Juchitán, Oaxaca, 1988

The photos of the dialog/interplay between Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo and their international contemporaries* is another neat twist on what often seems to be portrayed as “white people bring photography to Mexico.” Having the earlier Mexican Revolution photos in the same room help make this point as well. There was an already-existing photographic visual culture before all the artistic dialog started.

*Tina Modotti, Paul Strand and Henri Cartier Bresson here. For some odd reason, Edward Weston is not included.

By placing the dialog in context, this show also shows how subsequent Mexican photographers—in particular Graciela Iturbide,* Enrique Metinides, and Pablo Ortiz Monasterio—build off of the existing photographic culture. I found myself remembering and revisiting a lot of the photos from the giant SFMOMA show here with the new context. It’s not just about political statements or purely documentary photos, later photos are quoting and referencing earlier ones and the whole thread is part of the same culture of image usage and appropriation.

*Worth mentioning here, I am a major Iturbide fanboy.

Susan Meiselas Born 1948, Baltimore; lives and works in New York City Soldiers Searching Bus Passengers along the Northern Highway, El Salvador, 1980 (printed 2013) Gelatin silver print, 20 x 30 cm
Susan Meiselas
Soldiers Searching Bus Passengers along the Northern Highway,
El Salvador, 1980

The third part of the show was the weakest portion for me. It’s a combination of street photography with embedded documentary photography and anonymous subjects. The point, as I understood it, was that the camera itself is a traveler which can move almost anywhere. Which is true. But by opening the door to Street Photography, this section sort of dilutes the message.*

*Not that Joan Colom isn’t cool. I like a lot of his work. But for him to be the only Street Photographer in this section means that there needs to be a very specific reason for him to be selected. And if there was such a reason, I didn’t see it.

Pull the pure street stuff out and this section gets a lot more interesting. Most of the remaining photos are documentary political and human migration things—places where it’s traditionally exceedingly difficult to get a camera into and subjects who are just as difficult to take photos of. I find it fascinating to see the different ways these situations are photographed to tell stories and depict people without getting anyone in trouble.

I’m also amazed at how the same composition can tell vastly different stories. There are a handful of photos* of just shadows and silhouettes on the wall. Some are about oppression (soldiers and desaparecidos). Others are about representing subcultures who wish to be anonymous. The photos look the same because of the shared requirement of hiding the subjects. Yet they are all vastly different despite the shared look.

*By Eduardo Gil, Graciela Iturbide, Susan Meiselas, and Pedro Meyer.

Marcelo Brodsky Born 1954, Buenos Aires La camiseta (The undershirt), 1979 (printed 2012) LAMBDA digital photographic print, 62 x 53.5 cm Princeton University Art Museum, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund (2013-55)
Marcelo Brodsky
La camiseta (The undershirt), 1979

The last section involves the explicit recontextualization which comes from rephotographing photographs. This goes beyond the Richard Prince type of rephotographing common advertising images to make them art. The rephotographing here is to give new life to old images. Instead of being an old artifact which somehow survived, the photos become new images to be viewed and thought about.

Sometimes it’s just as simple as taking a picture of an old image. Marcelo Brodsky’s photo is of the last photo taken of a teenage desaparecido. Other times it can be like Susan Meiselas’s displaying a photo of a place in the place where it was taken in order to make the point, in a single image, about that site’s history.

All in all, I was very impressed to see an exhibition like this. I expect I’ll go back and spend more time in the second section of Mexican photographs.

Note on the prints

Many of the historic prints, especially in the section of Mexican Revolutionary photographs, are clearly noted as modern inkjet prints from digital scans.* This is the first time I’ve seen this approach to displaying old photos.

*Of, what looks like, glass negatives. I’d like to see some technical information about what kind of cameras or, at least, film type was used in all photography shows featuring work from the early 20th century,

I like it.

A lot.

In an age of online image consumption, I’m very pleased to see a museum embrace such a forward-thinking method of displaying images. There’s a bit of a cult with vintage prints or traditional prints because most items in a museum or objects/artifacts first,* no matter how artsy they are. There’s also the cult of the archival print in photography which seems like it would be shocked by just printing a set of prints from the digital scans for each new show.

*Why Sol LeWitt matters. Also one reason why I like Raushenberg.

It’s possible that for a lot of photography, especially as digital gets better and better, this route will become the standard for new exhibitions. I’ll be interested to see how things go.

In any case, taking this route adds a whole meta-layer of brilliance to this show as it is able to actually embody the very recontextualization it tries to exhibit. It’s about the life of the images, not the lives of the printed artifacts.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

18 thoughts on “Itinerant Languages of Photography”

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