Sociability & Surveillance Across Photography at the New York Public Library


The exhibition “Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing” pulls out an impressive fraction of the New York Public Library’s collection of almost five million (!) photographs. Predicated on the notion that photography “has always been social,” the exhibition justifies itself from the second you walk in the door.


As you enter the room, you see yourself in a tilted mirror hanging from the ceiling and become aware of the text on the floor in front of you, arranged to be read as a caption for the inevitable selfie you take from this vantage point. (See more willing participants in self-surveillance here.) This gimmick effectively highlights the idea of surveillance–as do the photographs of Google street views by Doug Rickard on view–but also our social willingness to implicate ourselves: to report on our own movements and put ourselves in the public eye.


Taking a long view of photography as a social element in culture, the exhibition has a fantastic display of international carte de visite among its many thematic vitrines. These small portraits, popularized in the 1850s, became a fashionable form of calling card, intended to left at the host’s home by a visitor. The black-and-white scenes are not always straightforward portraits; they are full of character and sometimes feature people posing together, small children, or people in costume. The back of the card is marked by the photography studio that produced it.

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A popular pastime in the latter half of the 19th c. was viewing twinned images, as seen below, through a stereoscope. A stereoscope is a viewing device that holds the images just enough removed from your face that your eyes naturally blend the two side-by-side images to create the illusion of depth. Although this might seem like a solitary pursuit, it was common for families and visitors to gather together to view stereoscopic images. Stereoscopic cards might portray landscapes, street scenes, or people, and they were often sold in themed sets.


While there is a slew of notable images on view–iconic WPA photos, works by Ansel Adams, more recent projects like Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip–the art history nerd in me was most excited to see images from the origin of photography, when people were still discovering how to make images from light. One of the first vitrines in the exhibition contains an example of the beautifully deep blue cyanotypes that Anna Atkins created of algae and other plants in the early 1840s (the image below is representative of this body of work). Atkins used a new technique to create these images in order to serve a scientific purpose: as botanical specimens.


Next to her cyanotype lies an original bound volume of “The Pencil of Nature.” William Henry Fox Talbot published this book of photography in 1844-6, featuring scenes of china cabinets that showed how photography could be used to take inventory as well as studies of cottage doorways with a carefully askew broom. With images like the latter, Talbot made the case that photography was an art as much as a science. So unfamiliar was the public with photography, Talbot felt the need to explain to the reader that these images were “photogenic drawings” made by light rather than the human hand–thus the title.


The debate over photography as art or science has continued, as the topographical studies of the American West, ethnographic documentation, and Google street views in this exhibition attest. Often today we look back at such images through an aesthetic lens: seeing artistic expression rather than documentary veracity. People have approached photography with many attitudes and purposes in the medium’s relatively short history, and I couldn’t help feeling that “The Public Eye”‘s dense, loosely organized viewing experience reflects that diversity and messiness rather than attempting to streamline it into a more coherent exhibition.

This treasure trove of seminal photographs is on view at the iconic Schwarzman Building on 42nd street through January 3, 2016, so plenty of time to visit and revisit. Check online for the schedule of free docent-led tours.

Strong misreadings: Tom Phillips at Flowers Gallery

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Installation view of “Pages from a Humument” at Flowers Gallery

A row of one hundred unadorned pages from an old book entitled “A Human Document.” Below, a row of pages similarly numbered but with words inked out or colored over to tell a new story with old words. Beneath those two rows, another row of the exact same pages but manipulated with drawings, collages, and a different selection of words. On view at Flowers Gallery, the exhibition “Pages from A Humument” offers the viewer both the starting point of this body of work and its reinvention twice over. British artist Tom Phillips took the Victorian novel “A Human Document” as the basis for an alternate narrative first exhibited in 1973 (the middle row). He returned to the original pages for another alternate reading, debuting in 2012 (the bottom row). Different strings of words are selected each time. Following the thread of them down the page the viewer finds poetry rather than straightforward narrative. This kind of strong misreading does not suggest an anxiety of influence, but rather a decided optimism about the depths to which a text can be mined for meaning: the birth of a reader.


Recently I wrote about works by Robert Seydel that are similarly text-based. Seydel used old pages from albums and books as fodder for an inventive merging of text and image bound together by a loose fictional persona as narrator. Here in Phillips work, no clear authorial hand, even fictional, appears. There are recurrent concerns about art–also seen in Seydel’s work–and certain words such as “toge” seem to have specific meaning, cropping up again again across unrelated pages. Unfortunately, unlike the show of Seydel’s work, Phillips’ pages on view at Flowers are primarily high-quality photocopies, losing some of the intimacy and surface interest that the hand-inked pages would have.


“A Humument,” which combines “human” and “document” from the original book’s title, suggests other trains of thought; the artist said in a recent interview:

There are little echoes within. It’s a funny little word. Human and humument and exhumed, earth humus, and all that. That pleases me because it’s not fixed.

Monument also comes to mind, as working and reworking the pages has become the artist’s life work, something he has returned to time and time again since his initial selection of the book in 1966 and now, at age 78, continues to develop.

Installation view of Pages from a Humument at Flowers Gallery

Installation view of “Pages from a Humument” at Flowers Gallery

The birth of the reader, ala Barthes, suggest the need for a strong, able reader. Phillips waxes poetic and facile, but remains fragmentary, at least as far as I could tell. His suggestions for a new narrative might be pithy, funny, or romantic, but they never build to more in narrative. However, as a testament to the capacity for human invention and some beautiful colored small drawings, they are well-worth a look. “Pages from A Humument” is up for one more week, through August 29th, at Flowers Gallery in Chelsea.

New York City, Art Writing, & Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly, Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons)

Cy Twombly, Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons), 1993-5

Recently I had the chance to write about what first drew me to art writing. I describe the moment when contemporary art really hooked me–deep in my gut. For me, this moment became very tied with my move to New York City in 2006, when I had just graduated from college and was starting my adult life. Having moved back to the city last month, after a 3-year hiatus, I feel more than a little sentimental looking back. Living in this city is an education in itself, but I have an especial gratitude for all the art that I saw and learned about at through cultural institutions here. As I settle back in, that incredible access to culture remains as much as a draw and delight as ever.

But it all started many years ago, at the Tate Modern in London, with a series of paintings by American artist Cy Twombly:

There was a specific moment when I fell in love with contemporary art; I was 19, a prime age for falling in love, as I would discover, and on a study abroad program in England. One weekend, some other students and I visited London. Along with sites like Parliament and Big Ben, we visited the Tate Modern, not so much because it was an art museum as because it…Continue reading on Burnaway Magazine