The concept of this exhibition is to show something of the character and intent of the Museum’s Photography Collection and to suggest some of the ways in which the study of photography influences the broader issue of modern art and modern sensibility.
The first and distinguishing function of an art museum is that of collecting and preserving works that are, in its judgment, particularly fine, or particularly instructive in reference to the evolution of art. If preserved, these works can be exhibited, reproduced, studied, interpreted, re-evaluated, enjoyed, and – perhaps most importantly – borrowed from by younger artists.
Therefore, it is with the premise that photography is an art and that photographers are artists – celebrating the vision of the men and women behind the camera – that this exhibition has been organized.
Photography was invented by the 19th-century artists for their own purposes. These men were seeking a lasting, literal record of their visual surroundings, and they found it. The new combination of illumination, lens, shutter, and flat surface coated with chemicals sensitive to light produced, within a short interval of time, images more lasting, more convincing in their reality, and more richly detailed than painters could produce manually in weeks and months of effort. This alone was enough to engender consternation within the ranks of fellow artists; and, after their first reaction of pleasure in a new king of image, art critics rallied with the haughty charge that photography was not and could not be an art. The actual world in which we live had too strong a grip on photography, they said, and pictures so dependent upon mechanical means could not be called acts of man’s creative imagination.
Despite the critics, photographers knew that they had found a new art form, a new mode of expression. As artists, they had extraordinary visual sensitivity, and they thought and expressed themselves naturally through visual images. As artists, they used the new tools as other artists before and after them have used brush and pencil – to interpret the world, to present a vision of nature and its structure as well as the things and the people in it.
The most important use of photography was in communication. Here the value of photography was seen as its quality of immediacy, of literal description and convincing presentation of reality. This equality was retained to a large extent even after pictures had been translated into forms that made them available as printing plates for the illustration of books. Almost anything that could be photographed could be printed; and books on travel, medicine, science, and art were published with a wealth and authenticity of visual information never b3fore possible. By now, photography has become as important as the word – perhaps more important as all linguistic barriers fell before this “picture talk”.
We use photographs as memories, memories of ourselves when we were younger, of places where we have lived or visited, of friends and relatives who are no longer with us. With the advent of the roll-film Kodak, manageable even by a young child, photography became a folk art – the most democratic art in history. The millions practice it, as well as the few who make of it a medium of high art and a tool of science and industry.
It can be said with certainty only that photography has remained for a century and a quarter one of the most radical, instructive, disruptive, influential, problematic, and astonishing phenomena of the modern epoch. The future of this beautiful, universally practiced, little-known art will be determined by young and unborn photographers who will decide how best to build on their rich and ambiguous tradition. A small part of that tradition is installed in this show.
CEO, Museum of Art – DeLand