Collecting the indefinable

By Jennifer Grigg from The Source Photographic Review

The definition of photography, for some curators, is an elusive one. Art or technology? There are photographers who do not consider what they make to be art and there are artists who use photography as a medium and expect what they make to be called art. Photography has undoubtedly grown throughout the 20th century in popularity as an artistic medium. It may be the case that not all photography is art, but where does that leave photography as something to be archived and collected by a nation’s institutions? Some of the difficulty in ‘placing’ photography within collections stems from the various ways of critiquing photography since its inception.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has been the most influential force in the collecting of photography. Although it has been a museum of modern art, photography has always played a central role in its collections. In 1929, before MoMA opened its doors, Alfred Barr proposed that in time the Museum would have a photography department which collected work beyond, as he said, the narrow limits of painting, sculpture and drawing. However, it was not until 1940 that Beaumont Newhall, who had joined the staff as a librarian with a special interest in photography, established the Department of Photography. He had the support of Barr who encouraged his seminal exhibition, Photography: 1839 – 1937. The two subsequent curators at MoMA, Edward Steichen and John Szarkowski, who were to have equally important roles to play in defining photography’s place in the collection, could not have been more different.

Edward Steichen’s exhibitions, culminating with his The Family of Man in 1955, were concerned with a propagandistic, LIFE magazine-influenced style that tried to interpret the world through photographs. The individual photographer was subordinated to the overall illustration of Steichen’s perspective. At the same time, the exhibitions were very popular and revolutionary in their presentation of the photographic image: whole walls might be occupied by one picture, without frame or protective glass. Some images came off the walls and were placed at different levels to take the viewer on a walk through the story Steichen wanted to tell.

When Szarkowski was appointed in 1962, his project was to address the autonomy of photography by redefining its aesthetic nature. He evolved what we now see as the classic modernist aesthetic of photography. Szarkowski set about defining a canon which would give credence to his aesthetic sensibility and he turned to theories already put forth by Clement Greenberg pertaining to the visual arts: namely, that artistic photography, like the then new Abstract Expressionist painting, would refer to itself – its own history, its ability to reveal the vision of its creator and the properties inherent in the photographic medium. In doing so, Szarkowski defined artistic photography in such a way as to include work from a diverse range of photography, such as fashion, journalistic and commercial, taking only the ones that satisfied his criteria and thus keeping the body of truly ‘artistic’ photographs (museum quality) to a minimum.

MoMA’s significance in the history of collecting photography is that as an art institution it has always considered photography integral to the canon of modern art. This continues with the current director Peter Galassi and the photography collection now holds over 100,000 works.

Photography has been represented in institutions in the UK since shortly after its invention. The nature and methodologies of these institutions is frequently a product of their histories. The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (NMPFT) in Bradford was founded in 1983. It was built upon the collections of the Science Museumand is a museum of the technologies of photography as well as of individual photographs. In their Acquisition Mission, taken from the 1995 – 98 acquisition and disposal policy, they state: ‘The NMPFT acquires artefacts to represent the past, present and future evolution of photography… as both technological and aesthetic components of human culture.’ Russell Roberts, the Curator of Photographs, sees the NMPFT as necessarily catholic in its tastes in order to fully represent the history of photography in all its facets. To this end, a photograph will normally be acquired along with supporting material like notebooks, packaging, contact sheets and history. It is important to the NMPFT that their viewing audience understand as much as possible about each photograph: if a contemporary work is bought, the Museum will, wherever possible, include a video or oral record of the photographer and their interpretation of the work. They aim to, ‘Commission contemporary photographers to produce new bodies of work for addition to the collection, placing special emphasis upon working methods, context and craft.’ The position of trying to collect everything means that aesthetic judgements at the NMPFT are kept to a minimum – the status of a work is never in question, and Roberts’ main concern is that the work should be comprehensible to his prospective audience. The NMPFT has the most inclusive policy of the UK museums and provides the broadest collection from which to study the development of photographic practices both technologically and aesthetically. The Museum currently holds over 3 million photographs.

The Victoria & Albert Museum was created after the Great Exhibition of 1851 to promote good design through examples of the decorative arts. Photography initially played a role in the Museum as a mechanism for recording examples of art from abroad and to aid the dissemination of the Museum’s contents. It wasn’t long, however, before the Museum began to acquire works on their own merits and so the V&A’s photographic collection soon incorporated a wide variety of photographs collected for many different reasons and frequently stored in different departments. The V&A now has a rich, amalgamated collection, containing important early photography, as well as more recent acquisitions. It is now a self-contained photographic collection, which may, given the history of the institution, be seen as slightly anomalous in a museum of the decorative arts.

Mark Haworth-Booth is the Museum’s present head of the Department of Photography and presents an interesting mix of pragmatism and aesthetic concern. He believes the Museum should collect ‘from an aesthetic point of view’. The intentional ambiguity of this policy is intended to allow a variety of photography into the collection without constraining the curators with arguments about the artistic quality of photography. In many respects this mirrors the policy of MoMA. As a result of its inclusive history the V&A will consider collections outside of its ‘aesthetic’ remit i.e. pornography, but aesthetic quality will remain its principal criteria.

In contrast to all the preceding examples, the Tate Gallery does not collect photography. The Tate’s collecting policy is like that of MoMA in that they both collect contemporary art, however, unlike MoMA, photography has been peripheral to the Tate curators’ canon of modern art. The Tate has never had a separate photography department or curator. It is the most powerful institution in the UK or Ireland in terms of prestige and resources and its approach to collecting is influential on other museums that collect contemporary art. The Tate began life as a repository of British art from 1500 to the present day and of international art from 1900. In the last decade their attitudes have started to change slowly; they have begun to exhibit and collect work that would previously have been seen exclusively as photography, rather than art, (such as Paul Graham) and this May are to divide into two new museums, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. There are many paradoxical aspects to their policies. In 1982 the then director Alan Bowness was interviewed byCreative Camera and acknowledged that attitudes towards the definition of art could change to include more photography. Were this approach to be pursued consistently it would imply that not only recent photography but also the photographic tradition should be reconsidered (Paul Graham’s early work). In an attempt to head off this inconsistency, the Tate has come to an agreement with the V&A to exchange elements of their photographic collections for exhibition. As in 1982, the Tate Modern adamantly does not see itself as collecting photography per se, only art produced by artists who may use photography as a medium. The Tate would prefer that the collecting of photography be left to the V&A, ignoring the fact that the Tate has much greater resources available; the Tatecould buy a work by Jeff Wall, the V&A or NMPFT could not afford to. The shift to a more inclusive attitude might be seen as a positive development but it would be a mistake to underestimate the institutional aversion to photography at the Tate; the Museum’s library, there for the benefit of curators, includes style and poetry magazines, but has never subscribed to Creative Camera. The new bookshop, for which a new photographic work has been commissioned, will not sell any photographic publications.

In Ireland there is no national photographic museum. The Irish institutions that house photographic collections share, at least in part, the philosophies of the collections already described. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the Ulster Museum. It functions like London’s South Kensington museums (V&A, Science and Natural History) circa 1900, under one roof. It contains scientific photographs, an historical collection, a photographic department that illustrates the Museum’s decorative arts collection as well as photographs in the contemporary art collection. Like a prelapsarian V&A, they have not questioned the links between their different departments to the extent that the contemporary art department see no connection between themselves and the ‘history’ department.

The History Department has an extensive collection of work by two Belfast photographers, Welch and Hogg, who practised in the first half of the 20th century, taking thousands of photographs of the people and buildings of Belfast, the surrounding countryside and the South. Welch was also an amateur naturalist, but his photographs of flora are to be found only in the Botany Department. Likewise, photographs of geological specimens or animals are archived in the Geology and Zoology departments respectively. The anomaly in the Museum is the privileged position of the photographs in the contemporary art collection. They are treated as if they have more in common with the paintings with which they are exhibited than with their humble cousins in other departments. The contemporary art photographs are held as prints rather than negatives while Welch and Hogg prints are available at £5.75 each, to the general public. While the contemporary art department has a budget to buy art, the History Department depends on bequests to expand their collection.

The National Photographic Archive in Dublin was founded on the collection of the National Library. It is pre-eminent among public photographic archives in Ireland with its purpose built premises and facilities. They have an extensive collection of historical photographs documenting Irish buildings, street scenes, etc. Some are contemporary, but most are from the 19th and early 20th centuries and there are over 300,000. Like the History Department at the Ulster Museum, they are seeking to make the collection commercially and publicly available. In common with myriad other archival collections in Ireland (Dept. of the Environment, Belfast; Heritage Dept., Dublin, etc.) aesthetics is not a criterion for inclusion.

The Arts Councils, both North and South, have been collecting since the early 1960s. Both councils view patronage as an important part of their brief to foster and encourage the arts. They have the advantage of not being constrained by the requirements of a particular museum to display their collections. In fact, they actively disseminate the collections to non-art spaces like hospitals and schools. Their positions as collecting organizations are unusual in that they fund many of the artists whose work they purchase. This connection with working artists would imply that they are familiar with work unrepresented by other institutions. However, as government agencies, the Arts Councils are unlikely to take a radical stance in their collecting policies. Photography is represented in the collections, but only in small numbers and these works have more in common with those in the collections of Ireland’s art museums.

The Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) purchases the work of living artists, but accepts loans and donations of more historical art objects with an emphasis on work since the 1940s. Their collection of photographs includes the work of Paul Seawright and Willie Doherty among others. IMMA opened in 1991 and though they have a relatively short history of collecting, they are obviously comfortable with the acquisition of all lens-based work. They are perhaps akin to the Tate in prestige within Ireland, but because of their relative youth they are unburdened by outdated collecting policies, in particular they do not share the Tate’s squeamishness about photography. The Glen Dimplex, the leading art prize in Ireland, held at IMMA, has contained photography since it started in 1993 and recent winners have included Catherine Yass, Willie Doherty and Paul Seawright. It will be interesting to see if IMMA can fulfil the implied inclusiveness of being Ireland’s museum of modern art.

One of the chief attractions photography has for curators of modern art is that it is relatively cheap and easy to get hold of. This has been recognized by Limerick City Gallery’s current director. Until 1985 the Limerick Collection contained no photography. Each year an international curator organizes an exhibition for EV+A in Limerick. The increasing visibility of photography in these exhibitions drew attention to the absence of this work in the City Gallery’s own collection. They then began a major campaign to collect contemporary photography, film and video in recognition of the increasing popularity of lens-based art. They have been able to acquire several entire exhibitions of work, including Anne Brennan’s Faces and Amelia Stein’s In Loving Memory. Additionally, the University of Limerick is home to the National Self-Portrait Collection, currently numbering over 300 images with about 15 added annually. Photography is an obvious medium for self-portraiture and the collection includes Tom Shortt, Karl Grimes, Mary Duffy, Martin Parr, Ciaran Lennon and others.

Both the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin and Crawford Gallery in Cork share problems related to their definitions as municipal galleries. The Hugh Lane is in the difficult position of being somewhat overshadowed by IMMA. Their brief now seems to be to expand on the original donation of art with which the collection began in 1908. This consists of canonical European painters and sculptors as well as Irish artists. The Hugh Lane builds their collection around their current holdings while trying to collect contemporary work. Thus far they seem to be unclear as to how photography fits into this scheme. The collection is strong on late 20th century Irish work, but because of their definition as a ‘municipal’ gallery, any contemporary work they collect must have an identifiable connection with the city. The Crawford Gallery, has been criticized in the past for concentrating solely on historical paintings of local interest from the 19th century. There are a number of photographers working in Cork and Triskel Arts Centre has shown itself willing to exhibit their work. It is hoped that the more forward-looking policies of Triskel will make an impression on the new Crawford when it reopens this year.

Is photography in Ireland well-represented by its institutions? Certainly, contemporary work is collected as art, but there seems to be no context for collecting non-Irish historical photography, i.e. Edward Weston, because it is outside the remit of the various archives and national historical collections. Conservative theories and definitions of art versus photography still beset UK and Irish art institutions. MoMA must stand as the model of a contemporary art museum that is at ease with the role of photography in its collections. The NMPFT’s inclusiveness and ‘new museum’ collecting policy are more akin to those of the Science Museum than a generic art museum. For those interested in photography, the NMPFT offers the ‘complete picture’.

Issue 23  |  Summer  |  2000