Memory and the the Photographic Image, on display at the Johnson Museum till September 9, is an unforgettable walk down memory lane.
Curated by Nancy Green, the exhibit features a stunning range of images — from intimate images of cherished lockets and family photo albums to images explicitly created for public consumption such as models’ portfolios and magazines. These images, which run the gamut from the ordinary to the extraordinary, collectively serve as a meditation on the photographic image.
There are many instantly recognizable images that are instantly recognizable. Photos from Ansel Adams and Margaret Bourke-White are among the most iconic. Most notable is Margaret Bourke-White’s photo of Gandhi at his spinning wheel, Hope Began with Spinning — Gandhi Spinning ... The smiling faces of Walt Whitman and Marilyn Monroe also peer out from among the images. The dichotomy between self-portraiture and the portrayal of public figures provides a fascinating dialogue about the public and private memory.
Each of the exhibit’s partitions explores a different aspect of memory. The diversity of these themes suggests that memory is intertwined with both the near and the far, the public and the private, nature and urban spaces, loved ones and strangers, life and death. But all these things — even those that are seemingly distant such as current events in other countries — are experienced and remembered in a strikingly personal way.
The exhibit weaves the lighter topics of self-image and public image into the heavier, more invasive images of warfare. The final section is subdivided into three parts on the aesthetics of wartime wreckage, death and dying and mourning the losses. The multi-layered portrayal demonstrates the complexity of the relationship between memory and photography. Photographs are snapshots, fixed in time, whereas memory ebbs and flows. Nevertheless, both can be framed, skewed and misinterpreted. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a single photograph can’t always capture the whole story.
The section on self-portraiture is extremely interesting, because self-portraiture is a highly controlled, regulated form of memory. As the wall panel notes, self-portraiture is “a conscious, calculated decision about how [one wishes] to be remembered.” Public image, on the other hand, is controlled by how the public wants to view prominent figures. Cindy Sherman, however, overrides the boundary between the two; she uses two photographs of herself one as — a lusty model and the other as a pudgy rendition of Mrs. Kris Kringle — to challenge the the portrayal of women in the media. The exhibit is also a meditation on transitional space as it takes shape in both the natural and urban landscape. While Berenice Abbott’s Penn Station illustrates the changes within the city in terms of the form and structure of buildings, Leon Levinstein’s Untitled (Nun with Girl in Tutu Walking Behind Her) portrays the movement of individuals within the urban landscape. Urban spaces are portrayed as scenes of evolution and movement in terms of human and non-human activity.
The largest section in the exhibit, which examines the relationship between war and memory, is dominated by images of violence, suffering, death and mourning. Margaret Bourke-White, a Cornell alumna and documentary photographer, was responsible for many of these images. She made history as the first female war correspondent sand the first female photographer for Life magazine. Her photo of the Fort Peck Dam was on the first-ever cover of Life in 1936. Bourke-White’s images provide an insight into the inner workings of wartime life; her images range from an artillery barrage to a dissection of a B-36 bomber.
This section is not for the faint at heart. Many of the images are haunting photographs of unidentified bodies, shrouded in mystery. There are also several images of mourning. Bourke-White’s 1945 image entitled He, too, found his friend depicts a young man paralyzed with agony, as he bends over the emaciated skeletal remains of his friend.
The process of putting together the exhibit was highly collaborative. Sponsored by Cornell’s Atkinson Forum in American Studies and supported by the Cornell Council for the Arts, the exhibit was in part crafted based on research by PhD candidate Franz Hofer. The wall labels for many of the workswere written by students from the Contemporary Photography class taught by postdoctoral fellow James Nisbet, History of Art.