To reach “Itinerant Languages of Photography”—one of the Art Museum’s two new temporary exhibits—one has to pass all that is not itinerant about the Museum. The entrance lies to the right of the Museum’s well-worn European mainstays. Each time I entered, I had to pass Washington’s confident gaze, his portrait serving as a reminder of what is permanent and perhaps most validated in the Museum, and what is not.
The curators must have had this in mind, too. In two rooms, they are tasked with summarizing three years of research on the itinerancy of photography. In this short-form of a longer project, the exhibit suffers from an inferiority complex; it does not shake this complex throughout its presentation.
“Photography—”, the first curatorial description begins, “as a set of technologies, a series of languages, and an ever-expanding archive—resists being fixed in a single piece or time.” By highlighting this itinerancy, the curators attempt to elevate the photographs, to speak to their importance; but emphasizing a medium’s importance by speaking to its peripatetic and eclectic nature is a precarious place to start. And in a two-room format—a summary of a longer, nuanced, and thoroughly researched thesis—this is especially true.
The collection presents itself in four varied sections: Itinerant Photographs, Itinerant Revolutions, Itinerant Subjects, and Itinerant Archives. For each section, there is a regional point of departure, respectively: Brazil, Mexico, Spain, and Argentina. This exhibit at its base, then, is a sample of Latin American photography, not of itinerancy. And with this context, it excels.
“Itinerant Photographs” revolves around the collection of Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II, who collected hundreds of thousands of photographs in order to present his nation as one at the forefront of technology. The photographs of Marc Ferrez capture Brazil’s late 19th century modernization with tremendous fantasy: this is not the European industrialization we are used to. His photographs capture the openness of Brazil as much as they capture its modernization. Next to the natural “Itapuca Rock” hangs the man-made “Botanical Garden, Rio de Janeiro.” Both contain people interspersed; yet, neither has people as its subject. This is Brazil, or Latin America, presented as an almost mythical opportunity: the physical and technological frontier.
In “Itinerant Revolutions,” we see two other opportunities. The first is political, seen through photojournalistic archive of the Mexican Revolution and other Mexican “revolutions.” Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s “Striking worker, assassinated” is compelling, the blood, the blackest part of the image, as much the subject as the worker. And a photograph of a drowned person being retrieved, with the public’s reflection in the water, is equally moving. Both make the viewer wonder what type of climate created such a situation. This is true in actuality and in the sense of a why a photographer would create art from that actuality (or, why the public would consider it art).
The second half of “Revolutions” is an abstract version of opportunity, but it is perhaps the best section of the exhibit. In it, we see the “modernist revolution”: in the same way citizens had the opportunity to reimagine and redefine their politics, so too did photographers with their medium. As the modernists attempted to document popular classes and experiment with surrealism, they also attempted to transform the photographic medium. Graciela Iturbide, a contemporary photographer, encapsulates this transformation. With two images of birds flying en masse, framing a mourning woman in one (“Pajaros 1”) and a cross-like electric pole in the other (“Pajaros”), Iturbide takes this modernist revolution in wonderful stride. The brief journey from documentation to concept is refreshing and desired.
In this vein, I particularly appreciated “Pajaros 1.” A woman holding branches walks through a characterless structure, with a door behind and nothing in particular in front of her. The woman’s silhouetted profile, near ghostly in ambiguity and blackness, is center, but the subjects are the birds found throughout the image. They are the movement in the photo, flying through the edges and in the foreground; the empty and roofless rooms, the pile of dried branches, even the woman, are stagnant. The flock flies in the opposite direction of the woman, but I do not feel they are separate entities: in this world, their existence seems contingent on the woman. Yet, I can also imagine the photo without the birds, as if they are a surreal and fantastical afterthought. Only the birds, the same ones found in “Pajaros,” are free of the constraints of place, realistic or otherwise.
“Itinerant Subjects,” returns us to documentation, but not regrettably so. Joan Colom’s suggestive and illicitly captured photographs of prostitutes – where the subject is not the woman, but her body parts – stand out as the best set in this section. In a close and appealing second, though, we once again see and appreciate Iturbide’s work. A woman faces the Sonoma Desert in Mexico, ready to set out on adventure. Like in “Photographs,” I found myself taken by the frontier and Iturbide’s sense of opportunity.
In the last section, “Itinerant Archives,” the photography is now digital and the sense of opportunity is partially replaced by nostalgia and melancholy. Gian Ralo Minelli’s “Girls”—a diptych that places two girls next to a larger landscape of urban decay—is immediately arresting. Then there is Cássio Vasconcello’s manipulated photograph of an unimaginable mass of people, appearing only as a texture from afar. Instead of suggesting a changed photographic medium, “Archives” suggests a changed Latin America.
So one may wonder: what does this say of itinerancy? In my four visits to the exhibit, I would say not very much at all.
As I previewed in the beginning of this article, the explanations of the paintings and the sections attempt to connect a disparate collection of images through an abstract conception of the itinerant nature of photography. It attempts to elevate the medium by saying photographs are constantly moved, documented, and re-contextualized. In this exhibit, many of the images’ descriptions seem to suggest that the presence of the photograph would not be justified with mere context.
For example, the description of Bravo’s “Striking worker, assassinated” mentions the movement of the blood outside of the image and the effect of the comma in the title. While I tried to appreciate the abstraction, I felt myself desiring the historical and personal context of this photojournalistic image.
Perhaps the largest problem is that this discussion of itinerancy—which, as the website reminds, is a “culmination of a three-year interdisciplinary project”—is forced into two small rooms. As such, in its summary-state, the exhibit appears to reach to an intellectual discourse that cannot be properly displayed in two rooms. I am convinced the photographs deserve to be presented next to, and respected as much as, the permanent collection outside the exhibit, but it seems as if the curators are not.
In an email exchange, another student described the exhibit as a “middling and overwrought rehash of Latin American material.” This level of denunciation is unfair. Though I was unconvinced by the curatorial explanation—the thesis, perhaps—the photographs deserve your attention. And as I told the student in my response, it is only rehashed if one has seen this type of sample before.
So, whether or not the exhibit in summary recovers from its inferiority complex, go. Appreciate it as a brief sample of Latin American photography and history (perhaps the two curators, Eduardo Cadava and Gabriela Nouzeilles, too quickly took this for granted). Let the photos move you and worry less about how the photographs have moved, or are moving, themselves. For that discourse, read the book. Be critical of the exhibition’s attempt at a sweeping explanation of photography in so small a space but do not be critical of the photographic choices themselves.
There is a reason I spent half of this article discussing the exhibit’s highlights while ignoring the curatorial summaries. To appreciate “The Itinerant Languages of Photography” as an exhibit, you can, and perhaps should, do this too.
“The Itinerant Languages of Photography” is on view through January 19 at the Princeton University Art Museum.