The Ambiguity of a Photograph, Part 1: Aesthetic Historical Documents

Photographs are historical documents. They capture a split second of a particular moment. A slice of life.

A photograph doesn’t lie.

Well, that’s not always true; especially in the age of Instagram filters and Photoshop. The history of the medium is filled with photographers who obsessively edited, altered, and cropped their images. In the darkroom and today on computers, light and shadow can be manipulated until the photographer is satisfied. Even what photographers choose to capture and print is very selective. One only has to look at the contact sheets of some of the most famous photographers to see the countless images that were left unaltered and never printed.

siskind_Chicago 30

Aaron Siskind, Chicago 30, 1949. Gelatin silver print, 13 3/4 x 7 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of the Phillips Contemporaries, 2004

I first encountered Aaron Siskind’s Chicago 30 (1949) a few weeks ago. Currently located in the original house of the museum, the work sits above one of the old tiled fireplaces. First drawn to the dramatic contrast of black and white, I marveled at the work’s ability to capture and hold my attention. Photography always grabs me, but usually what I like about the medium is the ability to place the content within a time or a place. This photo is removed from all context. It is unclear what has been photographed by Siskind. The only hint of context is the title, Chicago 30.

In the early years of his career, Siskind engaged with traditional documentary photography, often through a socially engaged lens. One of Siskind’s most well-known projects is the Harlem Document. The project focuses on documentation, but Siskind’s eye for artistry is present particularly in one of his most famous works, Savoy Dancers.

Compared to his documentary work and given its lack of context and content, can Chicago 30 be considered a historical document? This photograph captures what Siskind saw through his camera lens, but we, the viewer, don’t know or understand what he saw. The work can be considered documentation of a particular moment in Siskind’s life, but without concrete information and context, the viewer is left only with the aesthetics of the photograph.

This is a multi-part blog post; check back next week for Part 2.

Emma Kennedy, Marketing & Communications Intern

On Coburn’s Birthday, the Treat is Ours

Head Librarian Karen Schneider with Raymond Machesney, displaying a photogravure plate by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

Head Librarian Karen Schneider with Raymond Machesney, displaying a photogravure plate by Alvin Langdon Coburn called Portrait of Miss R- . Photos: Sarah Osborne Bender

On the 131st anniversary of the birth of photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, we in the library had the pleasure of a visit from collector and donor Raymond Machesney, who also might be Coburn’s biggest fan. (Take a look at the abundant gifts he has given to the Phillips, nearly all somehow related to Coburn.) As always, Raymond brought his infectious enthusiasm for this influential and sensitive photographer and guided us, along with curators Elsa Smithgall and Eliza Rathbone, on a journey through his latest gift: a first edition of The Artistic Side of Photography in theory and practice, from 1910, by A.J. Anderson. Coburn assisted Anderson in the selection of images for the book and this edition includes beautiful tipped-in photogravures by Coburn, Alfred Stieglitz, and Holland Day, among others.

(left to right) Elsa Smithgall, Eliza Rathbone, Karen Schneider, and Raymond Machesney in the library.

(left to right) Elsa Smithgall, Eliza Rathbone, Karen Schneider, and Raymond Machesney in the library.

Raymond shows his inscribed copy of The Family of Man, purchased in D.C. in 1958.

Raymond shows his inscribed copy of The Family of Man, purchased in D.C. in 1958.

And, though not a gift, just as delightful was seeing a small volume Raymond brought with him, a pocket-sized edition of the catalogue for The Family of Man. Raymond bought the book in 1958 on a summer study trip to Washington, D.C., while on break from his full time studies in Ohio at the College of Wooster. A political science major at the time, he found the book appealed to his social interests rather than any artistic sensibility. What else happened on that trip to Washington? Raymond paid his first visit to the Phillips. We are glad he did.