Last Friday night I heard Jeff Rosenheim, Curator in the Department of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, speak as part of the Atlanta Celebrates Photography Knowledge Series. After weeks of running from one ACP event to another, I feel like I just go to what is written in my calendar at this point and discover what the event is when I get there. What a great surprise.
I must admit, although I appreciate street photography, it has never really struck a chord with me. The images can be stunning, and it’s place in history is unquestioned, but I tend to be drawn to more abstract conceptual photographs.
Jeff Rosenheim’s lecture gave me a perspective I hadn’t considered. He said the responsibility of the photographer is to see the present as if it were already the past. The role of the camera is to be a witness and appreciate culture before it is in decline. The charge to photographers today is, as Eugene Atget put it, to “understand and photograph the social facts of our time”.
The invention of handheld cameras allowed for the capture of small moments of daily life, where previously long exposure times and cumbersome equipment limited photography to landscapes and posed portraits. This development liberated photographers and allowed them to record Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moments” and other nuances of their time.
Our “New York in the 1940s” show opened the next night. As I looked more closely at these images of New York City life, I was able to see the photographs through new eyes. The photographers of that day composed gorgeous images of daily life. What appeals to us today in these images is the nostalgia. New York frozen in time – just beginning to blossom into what we now know as the greatest city in the world. So did the photographers of the 1940s have that foresight? Did they know they were capturing something truly historic? Or were they taking a step back from their daily lives and surroundings and capturing the poignancy, only later to see the incredible historic relevance?
Jeff Rosenheim was really speaking to the artists in the crowd. His charge was to pay attention to what makes the photograph specific, real, of the moment, and culturally pure. I hope you were listening.