Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 17, 2016
Mitra Abbaspour, Lee Ann Daffner, and Maria Morris Hambourg, eds. Object:Photo, The Thomas Walther Collection New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014.
Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909–1949
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Modern Art, New York, December 13, 2014–April 19, 2015
“Object:Photo, The Thomas Walther Collection” homepage.

The interactive website “Object:Photo, The Thomas Walther Collection” (visited March 2016) presents an archive of 241 photographs acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2001. The site is part of a multiplatform rollout, including a catalogue (Object:Photo. Modern Photographs: The Thomas Walther Collection, 1909–1949, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014) and an exhibition (Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909–1949). All three components showcase new research and scholarship on the collection, which was partially supported by funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The “Object:Photo” website features traditional scholarly essays, a suite of digital visualization tools, and reproductions of the photographs, which allow visitors to explore the collection in depth. The “interactive” is the result of a four-year collaborative project between the museum’s departments of Photography and Conservation, with elements produced by the Software Studies Initiative, which integrates conservation, curatorial, and scholarly research efforts into a navigable format.

The “Object:Photo” website allows the user to explore the photographs in the Walther Collection as individual pictures, material objects, and as the subject of scholarly interpretation. As an example, Seconds before Landing (1931), a Willi Ruge photograph shot from a camera strapped to his belt as he parachuted to the ground, is dramatic enough as an image. Put through the website’s telescoping paces, the photograph and its history become even more compelling. The “Object:Photo” website’s visualization tools offer the opportunity to see high-quality digital reproductions of the photographs, which further emphasize the material qualities of the print. Because each object has been imaged to show the full sheet of paper, one can see how the margins around the print have darkened over time. The versos have also been photographed, allowing viewers to appreciate Ruge’s original label. The visualization opportunities include the ability to see the photograph as a conservator might, via microscope, or under raking light to highlight the object’s surfaces. Photographic connoisseurs perusing the Walther Collection do not have to rely on detecting the steely sheen of a print: chemical analysis confirms it.

In addition to comparing the material properties of the photograph, “Object:Photo” also allows its users to contextualize the works in connection with each other. By aligning the other thirteen photographs of the jump into the sequence into which they were shot, printed, or even collected, users can understand more about Ruge’s particular photographic practice. “I Photograph Myself during a Parachute Jump,” Ruge’s photo-essay documenting the jump is even helpfully reproduced on the site so that one can consider how layout editors mediated the images even further. Each of the photographs collected by Walther and made by Ruge can be gathered together and viewed, or collated with other collection photographs taken during the 1930s in the “cultural hub” of Berlin, Germany. Website visitors can also compare the objects in terms of subject, style, photographic printing technique, and paper attributes. If the information culled from these groupings is not sufficient, more traditional forms of scholarship such as bibliographic information, exhibition histories, and detailed provenance records are included. Ute Eskildsen’s excellent essay, “Willi Ruge and Fotoaktuell: Adventures for the Press,” further contextualizes the reception of Ruge’s work and details his adventures as a press photographer. Although most scholars have traditionally considered press photography to be the least daring form of the photographic medium, Eskildsen’s essay locates Ruge’s work within a burgeoning avant-garde not only in Germany, but across Europe.

Although MoMA may have undertaken this insightful research project, Walther must be credited with having the foresight to build an extraordinary and now-influential collection of U.S. and European modernist photography. Walther, a German photographer who moved to New York in 1997, focused his acquisitions on the rich and varied photographic production of the interwar years. At the height of his collecting, the conventional wisdom dispensed by curators Beaumont Newhall and later John Szarkowski was to focus on work produced in the United States and France. Walther instead turned his attentions to avant-garde and experimental photography produced away from this “axis of Modernism” in countries such as Germany and Russia. As Lee Ann Daffner argues in her catalogue essay, “Dive: A Materialist History of the Photographic Industry in Germany and the Soviet Union between the Wars,” for Walther the extraordinary political changes and economic upheaval of the interwar period made these places ripe for photographic experimentation. The Walther Collection focuses on these photographs, and in their new home at MoMA fill an important gap in the museum’s collection.

MoMA’s treatment of the Walther Collection extends beyond the micro view of their materiality to a macro view that considers the pictures’ circulation through networks. The networks under study in “Object:Photo” are limited to confluences of artistic influence, peripatetic photographers, and place, exhibitions, and materials. One of the most fascinating essays on the site, “A View from Above: Exploratory Visualizations of the Thomas Walther Collection,” however, offers an overall analysis of the relationships between the Walther and MoMA collections. Nadav Hochman and Lev Manovich contend that the information presented in this essay represents “the first time that historical patterns in a large photography collection have been analyzed and visualized using quantitative computer techniques.” Two types of visualization are used, as an example of traditional line and scatter plots convey the height and widths of photographs in the MoMA collection dating from 1837 until 2012. The not-so-surprising revelation is that the size of photographs remained relatively stable until the 1970s, when the sizes began to rapidly increase. This same data set is plotted by average tonality and year of creation using tools developed in the Software Studies Initiative research lab and available via an open-source license. The resulting radial visualization resembles a gorgeous nebula; the photographs under analysis are represented by thumbnails of themselves. Hochman and Manovich’s data-driven approach does not replace the work of the art historian, researcher, or conservator, but it does confirm certain intuitions and reveal new patterns. This essay allows quantitative data to meet qualitative data in the service of a deeper understanding of the medium of photography.

Frustratingly, Hochman and Manovich’s macro view cannot be replicated or improved upon by the user, and such moments are a reminder of how mediated “Object:Photo” is. Buried in the extensive “Notes to the User” section is the following disclaimer about the visualizations users are able to create: “The exhibitions, publications, schools, studios, and cities featured throughout the site as Meeting Points, filters, or data points on a map are historical events selected to reveal paths of influence through the pictures in the Walther Collection. The selection was made to feature both the events with the greatest confluence of artists from the Walther Collection and the broadest scope.” This quotation demonstrates that the creators of the site’s interactive dimension have restricted the available data. On its face, there is nothing wrong with a curatorial intervention that filters out less compelling data. In this case, however, the limitation of data has the effect of flattening the pictures under study. As an example, one can compare photographs by substrate, but not by photographic equipment such as camera or lens. Preselection of the elements of “greatest confluence” means that the user cannot determine which of these “Meeting Points” might actually deviate and serve as outliers. Preselection is to be expected in an exhibition, but not with an interactive tool. By relegating the user to limited data, the result is a set of predetermined outcomes. Trusting the audience with this information might result in lines of research inquiry, which would allow viewers to be collaborators, rather than simply consumers. “Object:Photo” is not built to evolve and is a rich but static interactive product. Despite delivering so much information, there is other evidence that the “Object:Photo” website’s style and content have been carefully edited. Its design is sleek, and thankfully eschews the Microsoft Word-esque hyperlink in favor of bold red accents that induce the viewer to click upon them for even more material rendered in an appealing minimalist black-and-white palette. This design does not allow for grey areas of any sort.

My wish to have access to all of the museum’s data on its photograph collections should not overshadow the treasure-trove of information available through “Object:Photo.” MoMA has taken an important step toward greater accessibility of museum holdings. Material such as evidence derived directly from the prints themselves by expert curators, conservators, and researchers is invaluable. This opening of the usually restricted archives of museums, information traditionally found in accession files and conservation reports, and restricted to those without an appointment, is to be commended. Although the digital replicas of photographs cannot be downloaded, they can be viewed in detail. In an era when we are used to having images at our fingertips, “Object:Photo” both satisfies our need to have it all and allows us to make meaning of as much of it as we would like on our own time. The elusive “educated non-specialist audience member” will certainly find much of the material here to be of interest, and will delight in the ability to act as researcher, curator, and conservator with the click of a track pad. I can imagine that the “Object:Photo” interactive will also serve as a terrific tool for those learning to make or interpret photographs, but especially those students who are without ready access to a high-quality photography collection. More market-minded folk—specifically collectors and dealers—will similarly find the high-resolution images, including those made using reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) software, which exaggerate subtle surface details rendering the features of the artwork plainly visible, to be instructional and a source of useful comparanda. In general, the interactive aspect proves—if this still needs proving—that photographs can be precious material objects worthy of close and careful study.

Whether releasing themselves from the constraints of large, stationary cameras, coping with the oft-restricted availability of supplies, or interacting and inspiring each other, the photographers represented in “Object:Photo” helped expose the medium’s potential. In addition to attending to the material economies of the medium, its website underscores the importance of social and geographic networks to photographic practice and interpretation. By giving the Walther Collection prominence, the team behind “Object:Photo” has provided enough information to rewrite and add nuance to the historical narrative of interwar photography. They should be commended for producing such a rich archive and engrossing tool.

Dana E. Byrd
Assistant Professor of Art History, Bowdoin College