A naked and terrified Vietnamese girl runs out of a cloud of napalm. A suited man falls head-first from the collapsing World Trade Center. A hooded figure hangs lifelessly in an Abu Ghraib prison cell.
Photographs have a way of sticking with us long after we first see them. Images linger in a much more visceral way than words do.
Images saturate the contemporary world in a way that was never imagined back when photography involved heavy cameras on tripods and unsmiling subjects standing immobile for minutes on end.
Once trusted to capture reality and truth, photographs now stir debate about the reliability and veracity of the images we see.
The changing nature of photography is the subject of “Thinking Through Photographs,” an ongoing project of the UB Art Galleries. The project, which debuted on June 3, was conceived and designed to complement the galleries’ year-long focus on photography.
The project’s creators posit that as imaging technologies evolve, so does our thinking around what we see and how we see. “Thinking Through Photographs” urges people to look deeply and carefully, and to think in new ways about photographed images.
According to Liz Park, curator of exhibitions at the gallery, the genesis of the exhibit occurred in fall 2019 at a symposium presented by Pratt Institute photography instructors Sara Greenberg Rafferty and Shannon Ebner. The event, Teaching Photographs, asked: How do photographs teach? How do photographs perform? How are photographs made?
“This was the inspiration for ‘Thinking through Photographs,’” Park says.
The UB Art Galleries’ exhibit was originally conceived as an in-gallery installation consisting of a series of wall texts, select books and binders of print-outs displayed on shelves and pedestals, as well as benches for sitting and reading, she explains.
“I was never planning on using any photos to illustrate,” she says. “There are already many photos in the world — I was leaving the onus on the reader to conjure an image or multiple images that relate to the text we are providing.”
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus changed Park’s plans for the physical exhibit. Instead of creating full-sized displays for the second floor of the UB Anderson Gallery, Park and designer Chris Lee — a former UB design professor who is currently at Pratt Institute — moved immediately to implement what had been their future plan to create a downloadable PDF version of the installation.
“Seeing our colleagues rush to online teaching to wrap up the semester, and realizing that there’s so much uncertainty ahead for fall instruction, we thought an online resource would indeed be helpful for students and teachers of photography,” Park says.
“Thinking Through Photographs” is now presented as a downloadable resource binder. It compiles literature on many facets of photography in response to debates about the medium’s appeal to truth and reality.
The novel presentation as a binder is part of what makes “Thinking Through Photographs” a one-of-a-kind exhibit.
“Chris and I were talking about a binder as an interesting format,” Park says. “It’s familiar, studious, and allows for cross-indexing of multiple sources that we’ve been collecting. It accommodates a range of voices. The ethos of the project is that there are so many great writers on the subject of photography already, and we are assembling excerpts and processing them in a way that is easy for people to relate.”
The PDF version of the project, like the original version, is organized around eight topics, each offering a variety of questions and prompts to help people navigate today’s 24/7 barrage of visual images. The topics build on one another, providing a multidimensional perspective of photographs as “objects and images, as agents of history and instigators of contemporary conversations,” according to the exhibit brochure.
Among the essays and books explored are Aria Dean’s “Poor Meme, Rich Meme,” Andrew Norman Wilson’s “The Artist Leaving the Googleplex,” Mark Sealy’s “Decolonizing the Camera: Photography in Racial Time” and Dora Apel’s “Torture Culture: Lynching Photographs and the Images of Abu Ghraib.”
The virtual exhibit provides a provocative counterpoint to the gallery’s other photography-based installations. It also is especially relevant in the charged conditions the world is living through now.
“Photography in 2020 is not what photography promised to be when it was first invented in the 19th century,” Park points out. “Today, we encounter photography with such intensity and great variations in ways its inventors could not have imagined. This exhibit was an attempt to start addressing the contemporary realities of photography.”
Current events underscore the timeliness of the project.
“Just as we were wrapping up this project, the world witnessed the murder of George Floyd via the numerous screens that have become part of everyone’s lived reality,” Park says. “This was a very charged and difficult moment for us to revisit everything that we had written and see if it made sense to share. We felt like it did. In fact, we felt it was important for us to keep asking these questions: How do we value and evaluate photographs? For what and for whom are photographs made?”
Park, who became curator for the UB Art Galleries in October 2019, says she has always been interested in how art exhibitions and publications can function as a tool kit — for thinking, probing and working through difficult questions.
“For instance, I had made a box set of postcards as an exhibit and similarly, this project explored photographic (non) representation of violence. But this is the first time making a downloadable resource binder as an exhibition,” she says.
Park and Lee are now contemplating creating a physical version of their online album. “We are not yet sure exactly what form it will take, but I am still working with Chris to turn this PDF into a physical binder.”
Hope Mora, Park’s graduate assistant who just earned her MFA in art from UB, was instrumental in assembling the exhibit, Park says.
Pqrk also is planning to organize a reading group this fall around
“Thinking Through Photographs” in collaboration with area photographers and photography professors.
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