Art Out: Among Others at the Morgan
“Hold on, let’s take a selfie.” The crew gathers one last time, united behind a front-facing lens, before dispersing into individuality. The concept of the group is as old as the art form itself. When hearing the words “vintage photography” the first image that comes to mind is likely a grim pioneer-era family who could be neighbors of the “American Gothic” couple. Challenging these commonly-held notions is the exhibit Among Others: Photography and the Group at the Morgan Library & Museum. Curated by Joel Smith, this gallery explores 150 years of the evolution of the group as a photographic subject.
Our trail starts in the 1940s, during World War II. A group of sailors on shore leave in California decides to avail themselves of the abiding natural beauty of the state and drives into Yosemite for a John Muir-sanctioned excursion. Upon arriving at a lake, they decide the time is ripe for a photograph to commemorate the day. The group photographer sets up his kit and the sailors put their arms around each other and offer up a platoon of All-American grins. Above this scene, notably mirrored in the water below, a second photographer surreptitiously hikes higher than the first and captures another scene: that of the staging of the original picture. No, the spell isn’t broken, but we do see the man behind the curtain, as it were. A spontaneous snapshot of the one unspontaneous moment in an otherwise unscripted day. The curator’s description off to the right doesn’t attempt any sort of philosophical diagnosis of the forces at work here Rather, it’s intended as a jumping-off point for the rest of the collection and it does that remarkably well. The gates are opened!
The exhibit begins rather ceremoniously with a portrait of Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and other dignitaries. The rules are simple and the pattern known; this is a purely archival event. The timeline reels forward and we see a quirky cluster of young women at the turn of the century. Closer examination betrays not a group, but rather a solitary reveler enjoying trick mirrors at the fair. She may be by herself but she’s far from alone. With the advent of the personal camera, comes a flurry of family and home photographs from various points of the 20th century. Whole families, the kids, just the parents, friends. Everyone now wants picture of all their loved ones. Who makes the cut? Only the one with the camera in hand gets to decide.
Embracing the utility of the camera as new medium, artists turn to their friends at Kodak and Polaroid. In Harlem, the greatest jazz musicians of their time pose for a photo on the steps of a brownstone. Further down, the left wall finds the Clash casually cornering the punk scene in the 70s. Only a few can be bothered to turn their heads for the photographer. Half invested and half unaware, the London punks exemplify a new wave of photograph: the candid. Nowhere in the gallery is the poignancy of the candid felt as deeply as at the photograph of a line forming to view the open casket of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. History’s wheel continues to turn as the USSR realizes the propagandic potential photography holds, carefully splicing figures of model citizens in front of a photo of the Moscow State University. Sure looks like a bright future. If only it were real. A century prior, the United States was also crafting political portraits, as such as the print of all the congressmen who ratified the 13th Amendment shows. As you finish making the rounds of the gallery, you realize that selfie you took with your friends has been a long time in the making.
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