The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Pictures of Pictures
How does photography change the ways we look and learn about art? Walk into any art museum gift shop—filled with postcards, posters, notecards, bookmarks, catalogues, mugs, refrigerator magnets, umbrellas, jig-saw puzzles, and scarves all featuring photographic reproductions of works of art—and you’ll find ample evidence of photography’s central role in shaping our exposure to, and appreciation of art. Talk to artists and, no matter what medium they work in, it’s likely that photographic images are essential to inspiring, documenting, and spreading information about the art works they produce. Ask art history students what role photography plays in their studies and you’ll hear about the changing form of the hundreds or thousands of reproductions they encounter as they master the chronology of artistic expression, the illustrations that cram their phone-book sized textbooks, the rapid-fire, compare-and-contrast presentations of 35mm color transparencies that, until recently, were projected from side-by-side carousel projectors.
Today, when our hectic lives often make direct access to art sporadic, inconvenient, or impractical, we turn to image searches on the Internet with increasing frequency. And once again, photography is central to that process. When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn—and for reasons I still can’t fathom to this day—a photo-lithographic reproduction of a celebrated painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), of the Comtesse Louise d'Haussonville (1845) hung on the wall over the our television set. I stared at it every day; I’m sure its presence helped shape my blossoming interest in visual culture. But so, too did TV, which I watched often, and one day I was startled to come upon what looked like the reproduction of the same Ingres painting hanging on a wall in an a broadcast of a Three Stooges film.
That was my first introduction to issues I’d later encounter in Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In it, Benjamin (1892 – 1940) posits that the mass reproduction of images eats away at aura and the materiality of unique works. I wonder, if he were alive and online today, what he’d make of the 245 examples of that same Ingres painting that are available online through a quick Google image search.
As we were thinking about who to ask to contribute a piece for click! about photography’s role in introducing the public to works of art, we heard about some interesting research that Dorothy Moss, a lecturer in American Studies at Smith College, has been doing on the subject. To learn more about how the manufacture, sale, and spread of photographic reproductions changed art history and the public’s access to art, click here.