Frances Benjamin Johnston, self-portrait, in her Washington, D.C., studio, 1896.
I recently spent a few days in Charleston, South Carolina, researching and revisiting sites photographed by Frances Benjamin Johnston. In the Heinz Architectural Collection there are 25 photographs by Johnston, an early female photojournalist and later in life a documentary photographer. Johnston’s interest in photographing buildings was mainly for preservation purposes. Her goal was to document the buildings should they be torn down, but also to inspire communities to preserve or restore the historic edifices if possible. The photographs in our collection represent houses, storefronts, and architectural details around the historic downtown Charleston area. The set was displayed in 1937 at the Gibbes Art Gallery, now the Gibbes Art Museum, and will be on view in the Heinz Architectural Center in the upcoming exhibition Architecture + Photography.
Frances Benjamin Johnston, 148 Queen Street, Charleston, S.C., 1937, gelatin silver print. This image is one of the thousands of photographs taken by Johnston in the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South.
During my research trip I revisited the sites in Johnston’s photographs in an attempt to recreate the scene as much as possible. Many of the buildings in our set of 25 photographs are still standing, but a few are empty lots, or are completely unrecognizable. Below are some comparisons between Johnston’s images from 1937 and some from the recent trip.
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Man, possibly Charles “Teenie” Harris, digging car out of snow at Harris’s home, 7604 Mulford Street, with Giarusso Bros. grocery store in background, Homewood
Much news attention has been given to Snowmageddon and the Polar Vortex, but in 1950, the Great Appalachian Storm dumped over 30 inches of snow during Thanksgiving weekend in Pittsburgh. The city was essentially shut down for days, the Allegheny County coroner warned those over the age of 45 against shoveling snow, and most of the newspapers ceased to print for a day or two. And Teenie Harris (who was used to being everywhere all of the time) was possibly stuck shoveling out as well.
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Mulford Street buried in snow, with man shoveling in center, Homewood, c. 1950, black and white: Kodak Safety Film, Heinz Family Fund
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Child seated in snow drift in front of house at 7606 Mulford Street, Homewood, c. 1950, black and white: Kodak Safety Film, Heinz Family Fund
I asked Charles A. Harris, Teenie Harris’s oldest son, what his dad thought of snow:
“I was very young when my father took me aside and talked about people who liked snow because it was so pretty. He really impressed upon me that though it may be pretty to look at from inside, there was always someone trying to go to work; many many accidents are caused by snow for people who don’t have a choice. In addition, there are ambulances that have to travel dangerous streets on their way to the hospital. In a word, he HATED SNOW!”
And it shows—out of over 70,000 negatives that we’ve cataloged so far, there are only around 120 that feature snow. Throughout his career, snow impeded his photojournalistic work…
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Long line of protesters walking during snowfall carrying placards that read, “We Protest Kutchman’s Appointment”, with Kay’s Furniture and Areford Brother’s Real Estate, street no. 62 in background, c. 1950–1965, black and white: Kodak Safety Film, Heinz Family Fund
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Car, Michigan license plate, with front smashed in, on street during snow storm, 1963, black and white: Kodak Safety Film, Heinz Family Fund
…but also provided subjects for photographs…
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Woman wearing earrings, light colored scarf, coat, and dark heeled boots, standing with hands in pockets on snowy lawn looking down into hole or well with stone walls, c. 1961, black and white: Kodak Safety Film, Heinz Family Fund
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Portrait of Elaine Coles wearing light colored coat and dark gloves, holding snowball, and squatting in snowy yard with light colored brick house in background, February 1958, black and white: Kodak Safety Film, Heinz Family Fund. This one ran in the Pittsburgh Courier on February 15, 1958, with the caption: “Um-m-m-m Valentine! – Pretty Elaine Coles… a fine Valentine Day choice (or a ‘fox in snow’), smiles for the Courier photographer despite February’s icy blasts. Too bad the weather forced Miss Coles to snuggle in her winter coat. She has the figure to match her lovely face…”
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Man, possibly Brother Pharaoh, in Muslim dress posed barefoot in the snow, 1955-1975, black and white: Kodak Safety Film, Heinz Family Fund
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Car covered in snow and ice parked in front of row houses at 2325 Centre Avenue, Hill District, c. 1959, black and white: Kodak Safety Film, Heinz Family Fund
But though he didn’t like the stuff, it’s no surprise that Harris still managed to capture some joyous images of those who did:
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Child lying on sled, sliding down hill, with other children standing at top, with tall chain link fence on right, Watt Street, Hill District, c. 1946, black and white: Ansco Safety Film, Heinz Family Fund
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Young women throwing snowballs with one story building in background, c. 1940-1945, black and white: Agfa Safety Film, Heinz Family Fund
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Two children jumping into snow in front of Bedford Dwellings, with truck parked in background inscribed “B. Portnoy’s Market, groceries, meat, produce, 2232 Centre Ave.,” Hill District, c. 1947, black and white: unknown safety film, Heinz Family Fund
In the fall of 2012, I met Polish artist Paulina Olowska. She was visiting to plan her 2013 Carnegie International installation for the Carnegie Café—we talked about the beginnings of the Dada movement at the Cabaret Voltaire and her plans to transform the museum café into a cabaret atmosphere. When Olowska later invited me to work on the performance piece for her project (and exhibit a collection of my puppets), I began thinking about creating a show about the ideals of early Dada artists.
It’s difficult to think about the trauma experienced by European artists living during World War I. What were artists to do at a time when humanity was pushed to the edge, when the reality of war and suffering permeated everyday life? The Cabaret Voltaire was an outlet for artists and intellectuals to express their disgust, their needs, and their aim to redefine art. Today, wars are often managed by drones controlled from locations far from the battlefield. At home we watch football, go to the movies, and get into arguments at the supermarket as wars are being waged halfway around the world. In developing this new puppet show, I thought about the iconic figure Hugo Ball, dressed in a shiny cone-shaped bishop’s outfit. I wondered what Ball, his wife Emmy Hennings, and other Zurich Dadaists of 1916 would think about the world today.
Come see our new puppet show, Flight Out of Time, this Thursday at Culture Club!Flight Out of Time (after Ball’s diaries) recreates the scene of The Cabaret Voltaire. A fantastical ending suggests a prophetic element in Ball’s prose. I developed the show with fellow artist and puppeteer Michael Cuccaro, and it includes an adaptation of Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto as well as a reenactment of Hugo Ball’s sound poetry. You can even make your own puppet for the stage! Hope to see you there.
Recently, I came across a New York Times article about a $1,200 domestic drone, whose writer described opening a bulky box, extracting a picture-making flying machine, puzzling through its complex instructions and, ultimately, having a great time. “Oh, my goodness, this thing is fun,” he summed up the experience. And I bet it was.
This may seem hard to believe. There are, one might argue, ample opportunities—in exhibitions, magazines, journals, blogs, books, courses, and conferences—to look at, question, and argue for the medium. But surprisingly, how photography actually functions in the broader cultural scheme of things—how it is employed, who and what it represents, and why it works so powerfully and well—remains underexplored.
With well over a billion photographic images being made every day, by many people and for many reasons, it is impossible to construct or support any single or seamless story about the medium. (To get a sense of the sheer volume of new images we are generating, see artist Erik Kessels’s installation of all the photographs uploaded to Flickr in a single day in 2013.) Today, photography is used more variously, often, and consequentially than most other visual media. And as photography is being redefined in the digital era, it is redefining our relationships to reality and each other. The pictures and photo-driven narratives that capture attention and go viral, such as the recent spread of and chatter around President Obama’s selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, only begin to hint at how deeply photographic imaging is embedded in and actively shapes everyday life and culture at large.
The fact that photography’s definitions have always been fluid—and its practice and audience broad—has made the medium particularly problematic for art museums. Photography, as Lady Elizabeth Eastlake noted in an 1857 article she wrote for the London Quarterly Review, “is made for the present age in which the desire for art resides in a small minority, but craving, or rather the necessity for cheap, prompt, and correct facts in the public at large. Photography is the purveyor of such knowledge to the world. She is sworn witness of…facts which are neither the province of art nor of description, but of that new form of communications.”
Cover and interior page of Photo-Secession, a Collection of American Pictorial Photographs as arranged by the Photo-Secession and exhibited under the auspices of the Camera Club of Pittsburg, at the Art Galleries of the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh (1904), a large quarto book with seven photogravures, Second Century Acquisition Fund. The page on the right shows Steichen’s Rodin—The Thinker from 1902.
Throughout the 20th century, more art museums in the United States began to recognize and support the medium, or at least their quite intentionally rarified version of it, by focusing largely on the photographs made as art. But what about all the rest of them? The much-heralded photography boom of the 1970s made it seem as if the medium, a century and a half after its introduction, had come of age. But even that transformational moment failed to calm down the nervousness that perpetually hovers around photography.
Covers of William Eggleston’s Guide (Harper’s Books) and Pictures for Artists Space (read the original essay by Douglas Crimp at X-TRA Online)
With the democratization of digital imaging in the 21st century, and as photography is in the process of being radically reimagined, cultural institutions and art museums in particular find themselves in a curious position. They can move forward on the photographic paths they’ve staked out for themselves or bob in the wake of exhibition and collecting models developed elsewhere. Or—and this is where things get interesting—museums can, in this time of flux, rethink their relationship to and broaden their inquiry into a medium that is re-engineering itself and in the process re-shaping our need for and expectations of representation itself.
FBI Agent, 1939
It is Carnegie Museum of Art’s decision to take the latter course that made me jump at the chance to become one of the first round of “agents” to steer the early programming and course of the Hillman Photography Initiative. The word agent (I’ve got to admit) at first sounded like a strange way to describe what we were or might do. As it turns out, it’s pretty accurate. If photography is increasingly understood to be a powerful agent of cultural and social change, then why not sign on to investigate and advocate for that?
Initiative, too, is an interesting word, one that suggests ambition, reassessment, a desire to forge ahead to make new things happen. That’s what makes working on the Initiative a unique opportunity for the first small group of us—artists, curators, writers, and a technologist—who’ve been invited to bounce ideas around and create a year’s worth of innovative programming. And once we’ve done that, another group of agents will be recruited to rethink photographic imaging and priorities their way.
At a time when the field of photography is being radically transformed, and as many museums choose to wait things out or host decorous and defensive discussions about what’s happened to photography, the Initiative and the Carnegie Museum have more boldly staked out an active leadership position in the field. What an honor to be a part of that. And, what a relief.
Selections from Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures: Earthrise photographed by astronaut William Anders, 1968; HeLa cells, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
The history of photography is no stranger to stories of hidden cachets of photographic negatives discovered haphazardly. Think of the discovery by a real estate agent in Chicago of 100,000 negatives taken by a previously unknown artist, a nanny-cum-street photographer named Vivian Maier whose work is now the subject of much attention and an upcoming documentary.
Artist and photographer Trevor Paglen’s recent project The Last Pictures might be conjuring a bit of the folklore and fanfare true to photography’s past, while at the same time looking to its future. Paglen, an artist and writer who lives in New York, chose a group of 100 photographs and last year, with the help of the public art organization Creative Time, and launched them into space. The idea came up years ago, when Paglen who often photographs the sky—specifically long-exposure photographs centered on satellites that orbit the Earth—began to think about the numbers of dead spacecraft locked in celestial orbit. In some ways, these hunks of metal now upwards of 800 spacecraft might be the longest-lasting artifacts of human civilization. Paglen said, “I started thinking about them not just as spacecraft, but as monuments to the historical moment they emerged from. When we’re gone, they’ll still remain.”
The cover (left) of the Voyager Golden Record (right) presents instructions on how to play the record as well as astronomical information showing the location of Earth. The record includes both audio recordings and analogue images of Earth for extraterrestrials to decode. Source: GRIN (Great Images in NASA)
Carl Sagan with the help of NASA embarked on a similar mission in 1977. Known as the Voyager Golden Record, Sagan and his associates at Cornell assembled a collection of images and sounds (both naturally occurring and language-based, such as 55 different ways to say hello), put them on a record, and launched it into space with the hope of explaining something about human life to extraterrestrials. Something about Voyager and Paglen’s project also suggests the meticulous grouping of visual image clusters edited by Aby Warburg for his now legendary Mnemosyne Atlas in the 1920s.
The protective shell for The Last Pictures project bears markings similar to the Voyager Golden Record, but unlike Voyager’s spatial maps indicating Earth’s location, Paglen’s visual data highlights the date of the project’s creation.
As a visual record, Paglen’s The Last Pictures is something of a diary of our times. The 100 images Paglen chose, or in some cases commissioned, were chosen through a lengthy process of investigation, research, and interviews with scientists, artists, and philosophers. The group was then etched onto one 5-inch ultra-archival silicon disc stored inside a gold-plated aluminum shell and launched into deep space by the EchoStar XVI communications satellite in 2012. The project opens up questions about the meaning of the photograph divorced from its context. But as an act of preservation, it is both generous and hopeful.
Selections from The Last Pictures (clockwise L to R): Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, Colorado, used by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and others; Typhoon, Japan, early 20th century; Waterspout, Florida Keys
Yet The Last Pictures is also based in contradiction. In Paglen’s introduction to the accompanying publication, he points out that on average, a person living in a city sees over 5,000 images a day. Yet most of these images are fleeting and will be lost as the devices that currently cast them across the world at hyperspeed become obsolete. The Last Pictures asks the inevitable question: Apart from the ecological imprint of human activity on this planet, how will we be remembered? And by whom? Paglen doesn’t dare wager that it will ever happen, but as a thought experiment, The Last Pictures is a curious collection of what we look like at the present moment.
Selections from The Last Pictures: Gas Masks, World War I; Operation Crossroads Baker, Bikini Atoll