Life through a lens

The Conversations exhibition at IMMA reflects on the relationship between photographers and their subjects, Carl Dixon reports.

THE more than 100 photographs in the Conversations exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin are drawn from the Bank of America Collection. The Bank of America — or rather, its subsidiary, the Exchange Bank of Chicago — began building its collection in 1967, hiring Beaumont and Nancy Newhall to acquire a selection of contemporary photographs on its behalf.

The bank’s choice of the Newhalls could hardly have been more astute. Beaumont Newhall was the first curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). In 1937, he mounted a museum retrospective of photography’s first century that helped establish the medium as an art form in America. And between them, the Newhalls curated so many exhibitions of photography and published and lectured so extensively that they were respected worldwide as authorities in their field.

The Newhalls’ acquisitions for the bank, which soon extended to 300 prints by an international representation of artists, form the nucleus of one of the most prestigious collections of photographs in the world.

The title of this exhibition at IMMA, Conversations, reflects on the relationship between the photographers and their subjects — many of the works are portraits — but also on how the photographs ‘talk’ to each other, and how generate debate among those who view them.

The earliest works date back to the 1850s. At that time, the act of taking a photograph was a cumbersome process which required its subject to stand perfectly still for several minutes. It must have been a profoundly moving experience to see one’s image reproduced in a photographic print, hence, no doubt, the solemnity that seemed to settle on the subjects’ features as they faced the camera.

So it is with The Two Scouts, an image taken by an anonymous photographer in America in the 1860s/70s: the subjects — one Caucasian, the other Native American — stare into the lens as if uncertain whether the cameraman’s intentions are hostile or sympathetic.

In the decades that followed, people became more accepting of the camera’s gaze. Paul Robeson, cast as The Emperor Jones in Edward Steichen’s study of 1933, seems entirely comfortable with the camera, and indeed plays up to it.

The subject of Dorothea Lange’s Damaged Child, Shacktown, Elm Grove, Oklahoma, 1939, may never have been photographed before, but she seems quite unafraid of the lens.

As cameras got lighter and more portable, there emerged a new kind of candid social photography, as engaged in by Helen Levin in her study of masked children emerging from a doorway in her image, New York, 1940: there isn’t a trace of self-consciousness about their manner. Robert Louis Frank probably did more than anyone to open up this idea of ordinary people being the most compelling subjects for photographs. He is represented here by Trolley — New Orleans, Louisiana, 1955, in which a public transport vehicle is clearly segregated.

The subjects of Garry Winogard’s World’s Fair, New York City, 1964 — six white women and a single black man, engaged in three separate conversations on a park bench — seem so disinterested in the camera that one must assume they were not even aware of its presence.

Photography became the great medium of reportage of the 20th century, often surpassing the written word in its ability to describe scenes of war and social upheaval. Some of the most touching, and intimate, studies here have a social angle to them. Lewis Wickes Hine’s Child Labour c. 1908 is a case in point. Its subject is a little girl — surely no more than eight or nine — at work at an enormous factory loom.

The most familiar image in Conversations is Joe Rosenthal’s Flag Raising on Iwo Jima. Rosenthal’s photograph, taken on Feb 23, 1945, shows US marines and navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi during the Second World War battle. The image is the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the year of its publication.

But Conversations is more a celebration of photography as an artistic practice than a retrospective of social reportage. As the medium has evolved, so too has its practitioners’ appreciation of how much it can be played with. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still 50, 1979, is, like so much of her work, a fiction: its subject is Sherman herself, dressed as an extra in a black and white movie.

Even the changing shape of photographs has influenced how we regard them. Art Sinsabaugh’s MW La 34 is an image of a field full of ridges drenched in rain that is six times as wide as it is high; the eye sweeps across the image rather than take it in all at once.

The most startling change this exhibition illustrates is the evolution from black and white to colour.

While many would argue that black and white is a medium that somehow manages to be more authentic — by leaving so much to the viewer’s imagination — the introduction of colour processes opened up a world of new possibilities to photographers.

Some of the most striking images in this show are in colour. Uta Barth’s Field 5, 1995, is a semi-abstract landscape study: one can just about make out the figure of a tree in the foreground, but it is otherwise a blur of blues. Thomas Ruff’s dpb 08, 2000, meanwhile, recalls nothing so much as Gerhard Richter’s great abstract paintings in which bands of colour are dragged across the surface of the canvas.

Colour can also be more unforgiving than black and white, of course. There’s a satirical edge to Larry Sultan’s My Mother Posing For Me, 1984, in which the photographer’s father keeps his back to the camera, engrossed as he is in a football game, while his mother composes herself self-consciously for the shot.

Conversations is accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue, which backgrounds many of the images in the collection. In some cases, the stories behind them are almost more interesting than the photographs. For instance, the portrait, Untitled (Willie Dettweiler, Vernon Higgs, Heber Springs, Arkansas), 1946, was taken by an eccentric individual who began life as Mike Meyer but changed his surname to Disfarmer to distance himself from his agricultural forebears: he claimed to have been the ‘real’ Lindburgh baby and to have been carried off by a tornado and deposited in a farmyard in Arkansas as a child. Disfarmer was a misanthrope and alcoholic: one must be grateful he found a creative outlet for his undoubtedly fertile imagination.

* Conversations continues at IMMA until May 20.

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