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.

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