Seen through the eye of the beholder
A photograph is an eye that allows us, from far away in time and place, to focus on anything that can be photographed. As the 150 images on view in the Canadian Photography Institute’s exhibition The Extended Moment: 50 Years of Collecting Photographs demonstrate, this includes just about everything. Among the selection of works there is an image by Gary Schneider that is particularly apt: it focuses on a human eye.
The eye sees deep into a photograph to what is not literally there. The century-plus span of the exhibition includes an 1896 photogravure by Josef Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta of a snake, its two-tone body winding across the small plate like a river meandering through a jungle. The eye focuses on the literal and sees something else.
A 1938 gelatin silver print, by Harold E. Edgerton, focuses on a golf club that, captured in multiple exposures, arcs around a golfer’s illuminated form. The sweep of the club is singular and transitory, yet it echoes the spiral pattern seen everywhere in nature, from microscopic creatures to galaxies so vast as to beggar our comprehension.
Art in any medium allows the viewer to see beyond the literal to something deeper, broader, grander. Yet photography does so in a way that is unique. “The photograph isolates the image in a unique and convincing way that draws the viewer into it,” asserts Ann Thomas, Acting Chief Curator and the exhibition’s organizer. “It distills a moment in time in a very acute way. The other enduring quality of the photograph is its relationship to the visible world, to moments that capture our imaginations, horrify us, that speak to moments of our own history, our memories,” Thomas says. “It is this relationship to reality that deeply engages us — even though we know photographs can be cropped, composed, and manipulated into almost any other image.”
The capacity to alter the image has changed tremendously with technology over the fifty years the Gallery has been collecting photography, as has the public’s perception of it. The public now regards it more as an art form, even as smart phones have made the taking of photographs more routine. Photography has changed “enormously,” Thomas says, “and in ways that we didn’t anticipate in the beginning.” In the 1980s there was a “tremendous wave of interest in the photograph as a cultural artifact, of the social and political context, and it was important to acknowledge that. We had to think much more inclusively.”
Digital technology made photography more accessible, a democratization of access that speaks to Robert Mapplethorpe’s maxim “the more pictures you see, the better you are as a photographer”. As a result, the medium was embraced by artists “who didn’t see themselves exclusively as photographers, but as artists who decided that photography would be their chosen medium,” Thomas explains. An example is Evergon, the artist known for his theatrical and erotic photographs, who recently said he doesn’t have a favourite camera, because he doesn’t consider himself a photographer. “I love that strange melding of the contemporary artist and the photographer,” Thomas says, “the way it splinters our categories, or further splinters them.”
Other departments of the National Gallery of Canada — contemporary art and indigenous art — also collect photographs, which has augmented the CPI’s focus on the “comprehensive history of photography” and is evident in Extended Moment. The exhibition shows how photographers across two centuries are drawn by the same themes and inspired by a wide range of artistic ideas. The exhibition catalogue notes, for example, how Lynne Cohen’s influences included “the art practices of the 1960s, such as Guillame Bijl’s ready-made installations and Richard Artschwager’s sculptural incorporation of popular industrial materials.” Thomas says, “all artists look at each other’s work, or at work from the past, and they’re inspired or they’re reacting against something. So there’s an energy that persists through time.” That energy fuels change, in photography and in the viewer. A photographer exposes a negative, and the photograph exposes the viewer to new ideas, new perspectives, and perhaps even revelations, be they large or small.
The early daguerrotypes changed the fact that, through all of history, only the human hand could sketch or draw or mold a representation of a face, a landscape, of any thing. Is it possible, in today’s blizzard of social media imagery, to comprehend how overwhelming that new medium must have been for people?
We see how our idea of what a photograph can be has changed, as in Diane Arbus’s nudist couple, which broke the prosaic traditions of family portraits. We see Edward Burtynsky’s disquietingly beautiful scenes and consider how we have changed the natural world around us. We see photographs that replaced sketches in advertising, with “apparent truth and verisimilitude on their side,” and changed our consumerist culture, or how Margaret Watkins’ “domestic symphonies” changed our very perception of that domesticity. Extended Moment allows us to see that as how we make and view photography has changed, it has also changed us.
The Extended Moment: Fifty Years of Collecting Photographs, organized by the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada, is on view from May 4 to September 16, 2018. PhotoLab 4: New Generation Photography Award Exhibition, presenting the three recipients of the prize – Elisa Julia Gilmour, Meryl McMaster et Deanna Pizzitelli , is on view to August 19, 2018. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.