Photo Credit

Photo Credit

Whose photo is it, anyway?

That’s the central question asked by Collaboration: A Potential History of Photography, a traveling exhibition—supplemented by work from six additional artists, four of them local—on view at Artspace through September 14. The exhibition floats the idea that the history of photography would look quite different if it focused not on single photographers and their innovations but rather on the role of collaborators in the production of an image, whether intentional, unaware or even as a result of exploitation.

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Collaboration’s text-dense panels are overwhelming at first, and it’s hard at times to figure out how the additional works dovetail with the theme. But with time to explore, your own route through this project will emerge, stretching across photographic genres, and with a little more time, you can put its thesis into practice by heading over to a second photography exhibition, this one at the Yale Center for British Art.

But first, Artspace. The creators of Collaboration—Ariella Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, Leigh Raiford and Laura Wexler—studied more than 100 photography projects from 1860 to the present, paying attention to “the various relationships, exchanges, and interactions between the participants in the event of photography that result in tangible traces of collaboration.” Comprising eight large panels, each made up of 12 to 15 squares, the exhibition breaks the history of photography into categories, looking at issues such as what’s at stake for photographed communities, the documentation of history, the exploitation of subjects, intentional collaborations and the creation of icons (think the images of Kim Phuc, the naked child running from a napalm attack, or Florence Owens Thompson, better known as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother).

Most timely and, as a result, most compelling is the panel on “the sovereign and civil potential of the apparatus”—in other words, how photography functions as a tool of the government, private organizations and the people. The familiar blank-eyed gaze of subway riders photographed without their knowledge, both in New York City by Walker Evans in 1938 and 1941 and in Paris by Luc Delahaye from 1995 to 1997, is perhaps the least egregious example of unwitting subjects, though both photographers believed there was a moral stickiness to their project. Evans, fearing a lawsuit, reportedly waited 20 years to publish some of the photos he took, and Delahaye acknowledged his images were, under French law, stolen.

More disturbing is the story of a Palestinian teenager, Raed Nasser Hassan Ishteiwi, whose photograph was taken from Facebook by the Israel Defense Forces and posted on fliers throughout his village along with the images of three other boys, accompanied by threats. “This action is intended to deter teenagers from taking part in popular terrorism,” an Israeli army captain is quoted as saying. “We will examine the use of this policy.” At the same time, still photography and video have been used for the greater social good—for example, to document human rights abuses and advocate for change, as noted by a display on the international nonprofit Witness, which has created an online toolkit of best practices for activists using video.

Interspersed with the traveling exhibition panels are Artspace-curated works by New Haveners Monique Atherton, Thomas Breen, Daniel Eugene and Ed Gendron along with Thana Faroq, Rachelle Mozman Solano “and their respective collaborators, who will each be named.” Two of these ground the exhibition in New Haven. Thomas Breen turned his camera over to four of his news subjects, three of whom then chose to turn the camera back on him. Their photographs were printed alongside his in the New Haven Independent, where Breen is a reporter. Meanwhile, photographer Monique Atherton’s documentation of her colleague’s walk home from work on the streets of New Haven, part of her Everyday Encounters Series, stretches in a band all the way around Artspace’s own streetside windows.

Taking a walk of your own over to the Yale Center for British Art will give you a chance to test Artspace’s thesis in a fresh setting. Contemporary Art: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions, also emphasizing photography and closing fairly soon (September 8), opens with a striking parallel: three richly colored portraits featuring women who played an active role in the direction of those images, with photographer Neeta Madahar having asked each subject to choose “a flower around which to build a fantasy persona…” In Sharon with Peonies (2009), for example, a woman wearing large peonies in her hair is seen in profile sporting a warrior’s armband and a deep blue toga of sorts. She stands archer-like inside folds of crumpled paper that suggest a larger-than-life peony. The photographs, we’re told, “are constructed through a collaborative exchange between artist and sitter,” a spin on mid-20th-century fashion photography in which the models become the co-creators.

Other collaborations are foregrounded when you have Artspace’s exhibition in mind. The photographer E. O. Hoppé captured “interwar London” much as Evans and Delahaye captured the subway, sometimes hiding his camera “wrapped in a paper bag or a shoebox.” In another exhibit, a group of nurses and their patients knew their photographs were being taken but may not have imagined them collected in photo albums and certainly didn’t anticipate them being seen in a museum display case at Yale University.

A beautiful, spare image by the photographer Tomoko Yoneda, Gandhi’s Glasses—Viewing a Note Written on his “Day of Silence” shortly before his Death, seems to illustrate a line in the Collaboration manifesto on what happens when photographers are “conceived as parties to the event and not its sole masters.” In Yoneda’s photograph, the activist’s glasses laid on a sheet of paper bring into focus the strokes of his own lettering. The portion of the image outside the circular lens is blurred and bright. The power of the scene depends not only on the photographer’s artistry but also on the man who scratched the letters, who wore the glasses, who left behind the legacy.

Contemporary Art is mounted as a celebration of “recent benefactors who are making it possible to carry on in such a dynamic way the rich collecting tradition established by Paul Mellon,” whose collection forms the basis of the museum. They, too, are collaborators. They choose what to purchase, what to talk about, what to donate, what to put before the viewing public. The history of photography—including how it’s told—does depend on far more than the people holding the cameras.

Photo Key:

1. Neeta Madahar’s Sharon with Peonies (2009) from the Flora series. Chromogenic print, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Joy of Giving Something, Inc.
2. Detail of a display at Artspace featuring clandestine subway portraits taken by Luc Delahaye.
3. Helen Stella Alexandrina Garnett-Botfield, photograph album of Aston Hall Auxiliary Military Hospital, Aston-on-Clum, Shropshire, England, 1918, photographs, with printed and manuscript ephemera, Yale Center for British Art, Friends of British Art Fund.
4. Part of a photo and text grid at Artspace.
5. A wider shot of items in Contemporary Art: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1, 3 and 5 provided courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art. Images 2 and 4 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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