A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play (February 14–May 18) presents an eclectic selection of eighty-five photographic works arranged in a continuous sequence that provocatively links images divergent in format, scale, process, and historical period. The first exhibition organized by the Morgan’s new Department of Photography, established in 2012 with Joel Smith as Richard L. Menschel Curator and department head, the exhibition draws on the great range of photography’s functions, from folk art to Conceptual art and from astronomy to law enforcement. It also highlights the creative role played by collectors in bringing the many voices and purposes of the medium into critical focus. Objects in the exhibition are drawn from the holdings of the Morgan and twenty-five private collectors, including artists who collect.
Since its beginnings in the 1830s the medium of photography has been continually reinvented to take on forms and functions its pioneers never envisioned. Today, the internet and social media deliver photographs in ever greater profusion, detached from their material, geographic, and rhetorical context. Increasingly we encounter images in combinations based on personal preference rather than historical association. A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play resembles the World Wide Web in drawing freely from photography’s vastly different settings, but the exhibition restores to photographs a physical specificity that they lack online.
“The Morgan is extraordinarily excited about taking a more significant role in the study and exhibition of photography,” said William M. Griswold, Director of the museum. “Our inaugural exhibition explores connections between photographs that may at first look unrelated, a gesture that invites the viewer into a creative relationship with each work in the gallery. Joel Smith presents imaginative insights on the history of the medium while highlighting the efforts of collectors who are inventively engaged in finding new connections across the span of the art form.”
Visitors moving clockwise around the gallery will discover that each work in the exhibition shares one prominent trait with the work that comes before it and another with the one that comes after, producing an evolving chain of visual motifs and ideas. Thus a 1937 news photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s head on Mount Rushmore, half shrouded in workers’ scaffolding, is preceded by Edward S. Curtis’s study of a Paiute artist painting a boulder: two versions of rock art in the making. To the right of the half-concealed Lincoln hangs a 1963 publicity photograph of actor Montgomery Clift in the role of Sigmund Freud, dramatically clutching his face in one hand.
In another part of the show, an 1858 triple portrait by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) of his young muse Alice Liddell and her two sisters on a sofa appears between muralist José Maria Sert’s study of a nude model, posing on a sofa as the Queen of Sheba, and an oversize snapshot from the 1920s of three young women on a country outing who could almost be the Liddell sisters grown up.
The exhibition’s second-to-last photograph is a large untitled print by contemporary artist Noriko Furunishi, who used digital tools to weave together dozens of images of desert scenery into a spinning, spatially impossible spiral. It is followed by a stunning image of around 1900 by German astronomer Maximilian Wolf, portraying an explosive spray of stars in the Milky Way—bringing viewers, as an accompanying label puts it, to “the limits of the photographable.”
Alongside the many works in the show by anonymous photographers are images by artists who include Ilse Bing, Roger Fenton, Anselm Kiefer, Charles Sheeler, Frederick H. Evans, Vito Acconci, Tomoko Sawada, Chr istian Marclay, Malick Sidibé, and Julia Margaret Cameron.