Aperture #213—Editors’ Note

Above, clockwise from top left: photographs from the Archive of Modern Conflict: page from a Dreyfus Affair trial album, 1890s; page from an album belonging to army dentist Dr. Anthelme Cottarel, 1914–44; four photographs from a World War I French espionage album depicting the history of male and female spies; hand-tinted photograph from the International exposition, Barcelona, 1929; photograph from a 1937 collection recording the village of Gheel, Belgium, known for its three thousand registered nonviolent “lunatics.” All photographers unknown.


Is the story of photography coming to a close, or is it just beginning? Considering the medium’s relatively brief history, we might assume the field has been exhaustively charted, but photography’s continually shifting boundaries require institutions of all kinds to respond to an evolving field. In this issue, Joel Smith, the first curator of photography at the Morgan Library & Museum, considers how histories are assembled, observing that the present is the most difficult period to apprehend; only with distance does the value of certain forms of photography and photo-objects become clear. Smith praises photography’s physical presence and the power of collections to present a “history in one’s grasp.” One such collection, London’s Archive of Modern Conflict, offers a unique vantage on photography’s narrative, through its multifarious holdings of vernacular, historically curious photographs (see images at left) that defy easy categorization —writer Brian Dillon describes the archive as “a species of research in itself.” Historically known as photography’s “judgment seat,” the Museum of Modern Art has played a major role in shaping the story of photography, and will continue to do so, but change is afoot. Quentin Bajac—the newly appointed chief curator of photography, interviewed here by Philip Gefter—appears determined to bring a more international and interdisciplinary approach to his department, noting that today his prestigious post is but one of many judgment seats.

This issue’s Pictures section presents ten photographers who have been overlooked and undervalued. The curators, historians, writers, and publishers who bring us these photographers give various reasons as to why they have been insufficiently acknowledged—geography, gender, illness, politics, debates about photographic style or representation, lack of self-promotional savvy, or simply a fading from the limelight. Len Lye is known for his experimental films and kinetic sculptures, but his enigmatic “shadowgraphs” (seen on this issue’s cover) only recently emerged from storage in New Zealand. Photographer Ken Pate deliberately avoids the Internet and proved especially elusive. It took us weeks to track him down so we could include his seductive images of a 1970s leather-clad Parisian subculture. While Pate continues to work in relative obscurity outside of Paris, photographer Rosângela Rennó is celebrated in her native Brazil but has only recently received international attention. Brazilian editor Thyago Nogueira argues that photography from Latin America has generally been overlooked on the international stage, and reminds us that what constitutes “overlooked” often merely depends on one’s point of view. Indeed, some readers will recognize material published in this issue, but we hope to offer some surprises, or at least the pleasure of something familiar, if forgotten, belatedly returning to view.

Any issue dedicated to overlooked content will be guilty, too, of not being sufficiently comprehensive. As we go to
 press new ideas and names continue to arrive, making us wish for a more generous lead time. No doubt our readers 
will have more names to add; this may be the first of a series of issues dedicated to “unknowns.” The lion’s share of content in the issue focuses on the past, but there is a counterpoint speculating on the future: how the huge technological changes we’ve recently seen in the field will determine photography to come. Three thinkers—Katrina Sluis, Christiane Paul, and Julian Stallabrass—consider how museums will archive and canonize a largely digital history that may not be placed so easily in our grasp. How will the big data of the Internet be balanced with the small data of the museum collection? Will the story of photography still privilege the idea of the medium as a means for producing works of art? Whether hypothesizing about the future or reaching into the past,it seems that many narratives of photography are only 
just beginning.

—The Editors


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