‘The public acceptance of photographs as visual evidence made documentary photography possible. But that acceptance varied over time depending on the case that could be made for photographic objectivity, the mode of a photograph’s dissemination, and the desire for social change motivating many documentary projects.”
That opening statement from the exhibition catalog sets the tone for what can be described as a most comprehensive survey of contemporary photography. “Subjective Objective: A Century of Social Photography” is currently on exhibit at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick through January 7.
The exhibition “re-examines the genre of social documentary photography by focusing on the shifting criteria embedded within the public image, and the responses of image makers to these transformations.”
The exhibit is drawn from the museum’s collection, with additional works on loan from public and private collections. Focusing on American, European, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russian photographers, the exhibition highlights those who use the camera to educate, persuade, and effect social change.
There are nearly 200 photographs by photographers whose work exemplifies the theme. Among the more familiar are historically significant photographers Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Larry Fink, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Alexander Rodchenko, W. Eugene Smith, and Weegee. Important contemporary photographers include MacArthur Foundation award winner LaToya Ruby Frazier (U.S. 1, October 9, 2013).
Because social documentary photography requires distribution through social channels, the exhibition also includes the published reports, journals, magazines, books, Instagram posts, and other documents that brought these images to the public eye.
The exhibition was organized by Zimmerli curator Donna Gustafson and Rutgers art history associate professor Andres Mario Zervigon. Julia Tulovsky, curator of Russian and Soviet nonconformist art assisted.
“I wanted to do a photography exhibition and I wanted to find a way to use our photography collection, which had not ever really been published before,” says Gustafson. “We had never really focused on the American photography that we have in the collection. Most of it is documentary-based. So we came up with this idea to do a sort of survey of documentary photography incorporating the American and Soviet material together which we thought would be an interesting way to think about it, especially the FSA pictures (Farm Security Administration), and Soviet and what Americans think of being propaganda pictures but in fact are just as valid as documentary as the FSA pictures are.”
Tulovsky adds, “It seems that as photography developed, it sort of linked itself, especially social photography, with the needs of the time. It happened not only in a particular country, but kind of across. So this also adds to the select photographs from the relevant topics because social photography responded to a social commission of the time in many ways.”
Regarding the title Gustafson says she used the title, “Subjective Objective: A Century of Social Photography,” in order to avoid narrowly defining social documentary photography and to open it up to discussion and thought.
In addition to the photojournalism by such photographers as Gordon Parks and W. Eugene Smith, the exhibit also seeks to represent major themes such as Social Reform Photography that heavily influenced the modern perception of documentary: that a photograph is transparent and its role as a mediator of the real can disappear before the striking reality depicted.
“We were very interested in seeing how photography entered the public realm. We started with Jacob Riis,” she says, referencing the Danish-American photographer who used the camera as a tool for social reform in the 1880s. Noting that Riis used his photographs for both newspapers and books, Gustafson says, “It was always photography in the service of communication, and that’s why the photo-journalists are also part of the story. Life magazine was incredibly important to American photography after the war.”
And while Life is represented, so is the German illustrated magazine A-I-Z (Die Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, or the Workers’ Illustrated Magazine), a publication that existed between the two world wars and showed works by a cadre of photojournalists who worked for the communist cause.
Gustafson and team also include contemporary works by photographers who made their name by posting their images on Instagram or declared an activist mission through their photography. Brooklyn-based contemporary photographer Ruddy Roye’s #whenlivingisaprotest on Instagram is an example.
“The show has been in preparation for a couple of years, but it seems to become more and more relevant as times have changed around us,” says Gustafson. “We wanted to bring it up to contemporary, but we still think photography has a role to play. And so (American documentary photographer) Nina Berman, Ruddy Roye, and LaToya Frazier all represent the themes that run throughout the show right from the beginning. I think ending with those three people is a way of tying it all together (and) talking about issues that are important now, have always been important, and photographers have wrestled with for many years — 100 years by the time we get to the end.”
Roye, in a gallery talk, quoted French novelist, playwright, and philosopher Albert Camus: “When a soul has suffered it develops a taste for the unfortunate.” It made him realize how he could continue this work. He was on the ground in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Milwaukee. His series #whenlivingisaprotest documents the struggle of life on the margins. When asked how Instagram changed his work he replies “I took it seriously, which is something that has remained through-out the work … as I was coming here a kid came up to me and asked me are you Ruddy Roye? I said yes. You inspire me. I wasn’t inspiring anyone 10 years ago. Nobody saw my work. I took a lot of iPhone pictures. I take pictures to share, I take pictures to see.”
When it came to selecting work and artists for the exhibition Gustafson explains that “the fanatic thing sort of drove some of my decisions. We said yes to this and no to this based on their importance as innovators, how important they had been in setting new pathways, people whose work talked to European and American work like Moukhim (Igor). We thought it’s terrific to see him working with young people interested in illicit drug use and rock and roll and those kinds of thing. You see that in connection with Larry Clark (another photographer in the exhibit) showing young culture.”
Co-coordinator Zervigon adds his thoughts regarding the potential impact of viewing the exhibition. “I’m hoping that people will see that documentary as a kind of balance between trying to capture the world with this supposedly objective instrument the camera, but also inflecting that vision through your own experience of the world as a photographer and sharing those two things together through the image. And they will always be changing.”
This is one of many exhibitions overseen by Gustafson and her long connection to Rutgers. A Brooklyn native whose father ran a business, she earned her Ph.D. in art history there in 2009.
Returning to the exhibition’s title, Gustafson says, “One of the things that became more and more important to me in the process of thinking through the show. Which is, yes, it is documentary photography, but it is only effective if the person who’s taking the photograph has a point of view that comes across through the photograph.”
Subjective Objective: A Century of Social Photography, Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, 71 Hamilton Street (at George Street), New Brunswick. Through January 7, Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., and most first Tuesdays of the month, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., free. 848-932-7237 or zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.