So my second visit to the Princeton Museum was mainly to see the Itinerant Languages of Photography exhibition. But since I hadn’t gone through all the galleries in my previous trip, I figured I should poke around some more. Especially since I felt like the museum deserved a second chance.
The good news is that most of what I saw was good. I’m not going to review everything. But highlights from my trip were the set of Giovanni Battista PiranesiCarceri d’Invenzione prints in the older European rooms as well as some of the Senese alterpiece paintings.
The Battista Piranesi prints are very cool. I’m a sucker for prints rather than paintings anyway and these are both very evocative in and of themselves as well as reminding me of sketches for movie concepts.
And the alterpiece paintings I just liked. When I’m not looking at modern art or photography, I’m partial to the pre/early renaissance work. I particularly seem to like anything having to do with Siena (I liked these before I saw where they were from).
I was also pleased to see in the late 19th, early 20th century Europe rooms that some of the Asian and African inspirations* for the artists—Toulouse Lautrec and Modigliani in particular—are on display next to the works which quote them. There are more works and styles mentioned in the wall texts as well. I’d like to see those displayed, even if it has to be a reproduction, too.
*It’s interesting though how none of the non-western inspirations ever get mentioned with descriptions of how those cultures came into contact with the West.
But it’s not all good. I went back to the basement just to check whether or not my bad reaction as me having a bad day or something more.
It’s something more. This time the Japanese room was open. All sorts of beautiful scrolls and artifacts nicely displayed with no context and just an indication of what period they date to. My eyebrows raised a bit when I saw some Showa Period pieces. I understand the idea of dating things by period when a culture has had little to no interaction with the outside world. But continuing marking everything created in most of the 20th century in a way which implies that it’s ancient craft rubs me the wrong way.
I also checked the website and found that they also list Heisei Period—aka, right now—on some items as well. Sigh. While I’m tempted to start referring to all Japanese art by imperial period, it would really be a sarcastic joke.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My first visit to the Princeton Museum confirmed that I’m particularly sensitive to exhibitions which present the work of collectors without providing any context on who the collectors are.* This is going to feel like a knock on the Princeton Museum. It’s not intended that way and I haven’t spent enough time in that museum to really come to an opinion. This is just me figuring out more of what I like and dislike in museums.
My problems though is due to the fact that collections—especially of modern art—are almost always specimen-based collections which reveal little about a collector’s specific taste and instead focus on the already-acknowledged big names. The Shared Vision exhibition is a perfect example of this. Yes, it makes a great primer for introducing people to many of the greats. At the same time, it’s more of an exercise in name-recognition. One or two images from each important photographer. Very little extra context about who each photographer is and why they’re important.
At least the photos on display were important and relevant choices for the photographers at hand.* But still, besides the “I know who that is” or “ah, this is a good example of this photographer’s work” recognition game there wasn’t much to offer. I’d love to take a beginning photography class to the show. But it didn’t offer much to anyone** who has experienced second-hand photography history.***
*Something which is easier to do with photography since there’s rarely just one print in existence.
**Such as my wife.
*** Well, that’s not entirely true. For whatever reason I’m finding myself becoming somewhat obsessed with Aaron Siskind now.
Anyway, I’d love for expert collectors to focus more on showing me new things and explaining what THEY like and why they think it’s good rather than presenting a bunch of art which everyone already agrees is important.
The other part of the museum which I went through was the collection of “ancient art.” Very mixed feelings here. And again, I found myself wondering more about the collectors than the collection. The basement of the museum is divided into “Ancient Asia,” “Ancient Americas,” and “Ancient Art.”* Half of the Asian rooms were closed so I only saw the Chinese Art. That said, everything is noted chiefly for its age and function and seems like it was collected without any sense of the culture it came from.
*Is interesting how the webpage displays this differently than the printed maps.
Ancient Americas includes a large and very good collection of Mexican art (Zapotec and Maya in particular) but lumps it in with art from Chile to the Alaska including some fairly-recent American Indian pieces. Some more information on culture here regarding the ball games but still pretty thin, especially given how it lumps all the Americas together.
In both cases (plus the tiny African Art room), there’s a sense that either nothing modern exists from those four continents or that anything tainted with the indigenous craft label is better lumped in with the “ancient stuff.”
I’m no means an expert curator here but the way things were displayed really got on my nerves. From personal experience, I’d love to see modern indigenous work—suck as the black on black San Ildefonso pottery*—displayed as modern art rather than ancient craft.
*One day, when I have the money, I’ll return to that pueblo prepared to fall in love with something expensive.
Ancient Art meanwhile dedicates specific rooms to Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art. And gives a lot more information on who is depicted, how things are made, what myths are being referenced, etc. It’s a pretty notable difference to the way everything else is displayed.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether the brown-person rooms were intentional or if this is how things had always been. And I found myself really wondering how all the items found their way into the museum. The impression I ended up in was that the strong points of each collection represented particular and specific collectors and collections which were left to the museum at some point in the past.
I’d love to know more about the collectors here and get a sense for who they were and how they came to specialize in the regions that they did. There’s such a clear focus in all the specific little subcollections that it just feels like getting a sense of who the academic behind that specific research is would bring a lot more interest to the pieces.
Or maybe that’s just me and my own weird reaction to having visited the Princeton museum on a day I wasn’t feeling up to it. I’ll have plenty more opportunities to visit. I’m very much looking forward to seeing The Itinerant Languages of Photography* and, as a new New Jersey resident, New Jersey as Non-Site has a special amount of morbid appeal as I get my footing here.