New exhibit at Zimmerli explores documentary photography in new light
Victims of the American economic depression and other similar cross-cultural tragedies have their struggles reimagined through documentary photography at the new Zimmerli Art Museum exhibit.
"Subjective Objective: A Century of Social Photography" showcases the subjective nature of documentary photography in an era dominated by the social aspects of photography, said Theresa Watson, the communications coordinator at the Zimmerli Art Museum.
On Sept. 5 the exhibition opened to the public with a 368-page catalog tracing the history of documentary photography from the late 19th century to the present, citing the social aspects behind some of the world’s most recognizable photos, Watson said.
“'Subjective Objective' provides that context, drawing on history, visual anthropology, material culture and trends in art to contribute an understanding of photography as a public medium,” she said. “It is a document rather than solely a work of art.”
Outside of the documentary images displayed in art history classes and museums comes a new standard that sets aside the need to shape society’s perceptions of people and places, Watson said. These images create a new standard where photographers are finally able to shape public opinion regarding social issues without being considered “art.”
The exhibition includes some 200 photographs including supplementary artists’ books, original magazine spreads, a video and Instagram posts, she said. It is drawn from the Zimmerli’s collection, with additional loans from public and private collections. 'Subjective Objective' is divided into multiple sections that define the shifts in criteria embedded within the public image and the responses of image makers.
Many of the artists featured stem from a time in which the country’s climate reflects our current state, depicting a psychological journey through American history, Watson said. Additional images include European, Russian and Soviet contemporaries demonstrating how different cultures experience similar everyday struggles and moments of bliss.
“I’m interested in art that has a resonance which extends beyond the period it was taken in. I think it’s incredibly important that we take images of social dysfunction 100 years ago and realize that things haven’t really changed that much,” said Donna Gustafson, the curator of American Art and Mellon director for Academic Programs at Zimmerli Art Museum.
The exhibition functions as a survey of photography in society, Gustafson said. Many of the images taken are by individuals interested in changing the world, people with a political perspective and opinions of how society would be better served.
“This exhibition reflects on the relationships between photography, truth, authenticity and objectivity,” she said.
Early portions of the exhibit document the work of men like Jacob Riis who worked odd jobs throughout New York City in the late 1800s before joining its homeless population, Gustafson said. Using his photos as a way to show the rich that the homeless situation was no way to live became his tool for inciting change.
Noteworthy photographs include pieces by Dorothea Lange, she said. The popular piece “Migrant Mother” focuses the frozen expression of a mother holding her children in the midst of the economic depression all while pointing a finger at disposed families, poverty and government aid under Roosevelt administration.
Others images like “Five Cents a Spot” display the living accommodations in New York as the city pushed affordable housing for immigrants, Gustafson said. The result being five men crammed into a dilapidated apartment only slightly better than living on the streets.
“It’s interesting because there is so much resonance of how America is today,” she said.
The museum aims to bring a new exhibit to the community once a semester while closing their doors in August in order to prepare for the upcoming semester, Gustafson said. The exhibits serve as a platform to question ideas, discuss social justice issues and consider our role as citizens of the world.
“Photography is everywhere. Everyone takes pictures but this exhibit is an interesting look at what it was before it became the thing everyone did,” she said. “It’s photography as an artistic skill, which is very important in a time where no one looks at a photograph for more than two seconds.”
Christian Zapata is a School of Arts and Sciences junior. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.