A Sprawling Photography Exhibit Reveals Us to Ourselves


In 1878 Eadweard Muybridge, already famous for his split-second photographic studies of animals and humans in motion, changed technological gears to create a 360-degree panorama of San Francisco, a process so labor-intensive and time-consuming that the shadows moved to opposite sides of the buildings between the first and last of thirteen frames.

Roughly a century later, Ed Ruscha mounted a motorized Nikon camera on a pickup truck to record Every Building on the Sunset Strip, the deadpan title he gave to his 1966 accordion-style book. As much anthropological record as conceptual artwork, Ruscha’s 24-foot-long foldout publication documented storefronts, apartment complexes, billboards, and intersections, with address numbers and street names providing the only text. Cars whizzing by were sometimes chopped in half by the mechanized shutter, a compositional quirk that chimes with the project’s mix of glamour and banality, putting the façades of such nightspots as the Body Shop and the Whisky a Go Go (where the Doors were the house band) on equal footing with an insurance company and a bank.

See photos from the “Public Eye” exhibit

These early panoramas, along with the portraits and snapshots in the New York Public Library’s encompassing
exhibit “Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography,” reveal that the subjects
of photography have changed little since its inception, while the technology has
become ever more democratic. Photography used to steal your soul; it’s now
an identity thief.

If Muybridge and Ruscha presaged the “just the facts, ma’am” ambiance
of Google’s Street View, Doug Rickard plumbs the dispassionate omniscience
of the parent company, which, like some corporate sovereign from a William Gibson novel, employs robots to hoover up raw data — both public and private — to be valued later by how many of us view a particular image and how many advertisements can be barnacled onto it.
Rickard trolled through Street View’s
archives, seeking out the blurry humans populating its virtual environs and
focusing on those whose depressed
surroundings — tired cinderblock walls in Dallas, featureless concrete plains
in Watts — perhaps echo their limited
access to the increasingly monetized
cyberspace we now inhabit more fully than we know.

But if we all now have dual existences as both physical beings and data constructs, there was a time when our common humanity was thought best expressed through silver-nitrate emulsion and black-and-white halftone prints. In 1955 photographer Edward Steichen put together the “Family of Man” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art: 503 pictures, from photographers both famous and unknown, which attempted to represent Homo sapiens in our vast diversity. Enlargements (sometimes at mural size) were hung from the ceiling, mounted near the floor, or cantilevered from the wall — a dynamic layout presenting such irreducible themes as birth, life, and death. Images of families included African polygamists, Japanese farmers, and a multigenerational American clan. Perennially popular with the public (the catalog has sold more than 5 million copies and remains in print), the exhibit became an easy target for those who later decried its heterosexual, patriarchal view of civilization, centered on the family unit.

But as Stanford professor Fred Turner has pointed out, the show “championed
a far more open, tolerant, and diverse
society” than that in which it took place, striving to counteract the totalitarian worldview summed up by the first sentence in a 1938 Nazi school primer: “The foundation of the National Socialist outlook on life is the perception of the
unlikeness of men.” Steichen and his
collaborators were determined — despite the sophisticated propaganda and growing nuclear arsenals on both sides of the Cold War divide — to illustrate that all peoples, regardless of appearance,
indeed belonged to one big family.
The “Family of Man” images presented here are straightforward, including a child scarred by the Hiroshima bombing and a mother doting on her baby under the watchful gaze of the family cat, and
are exhibited in the various printed
formats through which they have
been disseminated around the world.

One can be sure that Merry Alpern’s mid-1990s photos of sex workers and johns clandestinely shot through an
after-hours club’s window would not have made Steichen’s cut, redolent of
humanity’s desires though they are.
The images, taken just as our age of on-
demand porn and surrendered privacy was blossoming, seem tame today, though they became, as a wall label wryly notes, “both notorious and
profitable for Alpern after the National
Endowment for the Arts rescinded a grant that had been awarded to her
by the agency’s photography panel.”

Just last year, using Edward Snowden’s revelations about government agencies collecting private data as his starting point, Trevor Paglen took aerial photographs of various national-security complexes at night, the bright, tentacle-like arteries of roads and parking lots seeming to illustrate the light-speed flow of intercepted information. Wall labels here inform us that 350
million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day, and that “Photography has
always been social.”

A display of “Missing” flyers from the days after the 9-11
attacks proves devastatingly poignant, quotidian family snapshots transformed into desperate wanted posters — not for the capture of criminals but for the recovery of loved ones, or at least for confirmation of their fates. These photos are not art, of course, but they are something beyond the sentimental traces of human interaction that characterize the family photo album. These were workaday lives unwillingly magnified by the machinations of history, yearning portraits that are the
antithesis of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s characterization of the 9-11 attacks as “the greatest work of
art imaginable for the whole cosmos,”
or of ISIS’s videos of ritual murder. The former ignores the divide between art and reality, while the latter, like postcards of lynchings, denies the humanity of its subjects.

As effortless as photography has
become, the scope of its impact and
intrusions now threatens to eclipse
the subjects it portrays.

See photos from the “Public Eye” exhibit

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