November 25, 2018, posted by Daniela Baumann

Commemorating John F. Kennedy 55 years later: A look into the world through the TV

Today marks the 55th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's funeral. The American president was buried on November 25, 1963, three days after he had been the victim of a public assassination in Dallas. In the holdings of The Walther Collection is a remarkable series by an unknown photographer, who documented the television coverage of the memorial service in 87 images of a TV screen. Due to their high degree of blur and graininess, the shots convey many scenes only vaguely, but still invite us to participate in the ceremony through shaky black and white pictures. Nevertheless, the anachronism of this gesture is interesting: after generations of innovators had painstakingly developed still images into moving pictures, the photographer took a step in the opposite direction.

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Presumably, the images were created on the hunch that this moment would be historic, leaving the world changed. Perhaps lacking other possibilities or means to capture, store, and archive this important event, the television viewer grabbed the camera, which, as several other "TV screenshots" in The Walther Collection prove, was not uncommon behavior before the invention of the video recorder.

The live broadcast on television allowed the photographer to follow the events of this memorable day up close, even though they were likely to be far away. As clearly as if looking out the window, they watched what was going on in Washington: how the long funeral procession of mourners, often weeping, moved slowly toward the Capitol, the carriage with the coffin covered by an American flag. And they saw Jackie Kennedy, her grief-stricken face elegantly concealed by a veil, holding her two young children by each hand.

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"Electric Telescope" is originally what Paul Nipkow, who is regarded as the inventor of television, wanted to call the apparatus in 1884. The name television finally prevailed, and refers to the idea of an open window, allowing a direct view into the distance. In the 1950s, television manufacturers especially praised this quality for their products: "You really have the beautiful illusion that the screen of your receiver is a kind of window, an additional window in your home—a window that gives you a glimpse into the world." (Lambert-Wiesing 2001)

But proximity to such events of the world is only an illusion of the medium. In fact, the photographer was at home, far from the funeral ceremony—only the photographs remain as proof of their participation in it. His early death made John F. Kennedy a myth. The four-day ad-free TV broadcast following the assassination marked a sad climax in the cult around his person. At the same time, this television event provided millions of Americans with a platform for their collective mourning and outraged critical voices that denied the medium any cultural significance.

– Henriette Kriese

November 5, 2018, posted by Daniela Baumann

Imagining Everyday Life: Reflections on the Recent Symposium

Our symposium on vernacular photography was a great success! Thank you to all who participated and attended. Please note we look forward to making a video recording of the proceedings available soon; check back here for updates.

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On October 19 and 20, The Walther Collection, The Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University, and The Barnard Center for Research on Women at Barnard College hosted a convening of twenty speakers over two days at Columbia's Lenfest Center for the Arts. The goal of the symposium was to try and come to terms with what vernacular photography is and what social, political, and economic role it might have within both the history of photography and larger social histories more generally. Throughout the conference, it quickly emerged that the category of the "vernacular"—which can be reasonably described as photography that is not meant to be art, but instead serves some other purpose such as government identification, family photos, architectural documentation and much else—is sharply contested.

Through the close study of various photographs in and beyond The Walther Collection's holdings, the assembled art historians, theorists, social historians, scholars on race and sexuality, and curators contributed to a vivid and complex debate about how and if we can define the term, and maybe more urgently, what it does.

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The first session on Friday night, entitled "Why Vernacular Photography? The Limits & Possibilities of a Field," considered how vernacular photography should be understood and utilized—for its contributions to social history? For its artistic potential? The highly interdisciplinary panelists made compelling cases, both from socio-political and art-historical perspectives. Ariella Azoulay (Brown University) highlighted the evidence of "ontological violence" that remains inseparable from the Western history of photography, specifically when looking at 19th century cartes de visite from South Africa, as well as stolen artifacts more generally. Azoulay insisted upon the inescapable "imperial shutter," imploring viewers not to lose sight of the conditions of the photographs’ production, as such photographs were often instrumental to, and therefore extend, the violence of the colonial agenda. Her argument was echoed by Patricia Hayes’ presentation, "Photographs on the edge of history," which dealt specifically with the haunting images of Gungnuhana, a tribal King of the empire of Gaza, upon his capture in 1895.

Clément Chéroux (SFMoMa) used the etymology of the word vernacular (from the Latin vernaculus, 'domestic, native'; from verna, 'home-born slave')—as several others would later—as a starting point to delineate the multi-faceted nature of the category, and its future prospects as a curatorial framework. And in a stirring moment, Geoffrey Batchen (Victoria University of Wellington), who is well known for his pioneering book Vernacular Photographies (2000) argued for the jettison of the category as a whole, finding it no longer useful to distinguish between types of photographic images. Though arrived at through varying approaches, the presentations and ensuing discussion wrestled with the very admissibility of the vernacular as a term and as a context for artistic display and inquiry.

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The second day of the conference expanded upon these provocative propositions. Tina Campt (Barnard College) presided on the morning's session on portrait imagery, framed by Allan Sekula’s theory of "The Shadow Archive," an approach that informed the first exhibition in our series. Presentations interrogated the problematics of "capture" – as a mechanical photographic process, and as forms of political or social subjection: Nicole Fleetwood (Rutgers University) showed prison studio photographs, as well as images taken by incarcerated individuals in the United States; Lily Cho (York University) investigated a series of ID photos in The Walther Collection of migrant workers; and Laura Wexler (Yale University) presented a set of early twentieth century photographs of residents of a psychiatric institution, also in the holdings of the Collection. Each approach emphasized the necessity of a distinct and careful discourse within vernacular studies that foregrounds the conditions of captivity and oppression apparent in these and other examples, against any attempt toward mere aestheticization.

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Others on day two of the conference undertook investigative case studies of vernacular photographs, revealing their specific, often obscured histories. Ali Behdad (University of California, Los Angeles) offered an analysis of family portrait photography in early twentieth-century Iran and the role such images played in constructing authoritative notions of the patriarchal nuclear family. In the third panel, "Performance and Transformation: Photographic (Re)visions of Subjectivity," Elspeth Brown (University of Toronto) conducted a comprehensive review of physique photographs by mid-twentieth century photographer Bob Mizer, especially discussing the success of his imagery in creating a cohesive, and galvanized homoerotic community—a success, she argued, was nonetheless born of certain problematic notions of white racial superiority and physiognomy. Curator Sophie Hackett (Art Gallery of Ontario) zoomed in on "Bobbie," a core member of Casa Susanna, a community of trans men in upstate New York during the 1960 and 70s. And Leigh Raiford (UC Berkeley) looked side by side at two albums compiled by African Americans abroad, unpacking the gender dynamics of each. One by the exiled wife, Kathleen, and family of Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver, and one an album of black soldiers in the Vietnam War celebrating a visit and performance by Miss Black America. As Anne Doran writes in her conference review, Raiford “concludes that photography is both a tool of oppression and an act of survival."

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The fourth and final panel, "Space, Materiality, and the Social Worlds of the Photography," approached the physical aspect of photographic images—their tactility, circulation, and affect throughout time. Chair Marianne Hirsch (Columbia University) highlighted the work of two contemporary artists making work out of fragments of family photographs, their finished installations like kaleidoscopic family histories themselves. Drew Thompson (Bard College) spoke on the corporate history of Polaroid, and its troubling role in sowing racial discord during the apartheid era in South Africa. Thy Phu's (Western University) presentation compared and contrasted the Collection's "Shaped Photograph Family Album" with an album likely compiled by a member of a South Vietnamese military academy, whose loyalties would have proven dangerous once the regime turned Communist in 1975. She stressed in this juxtaposition how one’s personal memories—and choices in preserving them—portray either great intimacy or foretell profound estrangement, when the personal comes into conflict with the political. Deborah Willis (New York University) enacted a similar close reading of another remarkable military album, compiled by a black serviceman during World War II, showing, in contrast, how effectively this object speaks through time to tell his story. Lastly, closing the conference, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (NYU), spoke of the implication of vernacular photography in a 'white-cube' exhibition space, stating that "no photograph is born vernacular." She urged us to consider the peculiar lives and afterlives of each "orphaned" image, including its most recent reincarnations—that is, to appear in an exhibition on vernacular photography. Perhaps reformatted, reproduced, framed, or digitized, these images continue on their shape-shifting, generative journey.

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In episode three of Ulysses, James Joyce has Stephen Daedalus "shut his eyes and see." This line, in all its suggestiveness, had a compelling resonance over the course of the two-day symposium. Much of the conversation was, naturally, about what we see; but also, more importantly, what we may fail to notice when we look at these types of photographs. Memorably, Gil Hochberg opened the third session with personal photographs and an intimate recollection of a younger self, reminding us of the innumerable unseen histories that underlie each and every vernacular image. Similarly, with poetic allusion, both Brian Wallis (The Walther Collection) and Shawn Michelle Smith (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) commenced their presentations with a 19th century tintype from the collection, of a photographer seemingly in the middle of making an exposure, whose resultant image is unknown to us. In so doing, the argument was clear: for a critical, investigative, and mindful approach to the shifting—at times unsteady—but dynamic terrain of vernacular photography. The Collection looks forward to continuing these discussions.

– Felix Chan, Julian Cosma & Sara Softness

October 18, 2018, posted by Daniela Baumann

"Imagining Everyday Life" Highlight: The Girlfriends' Album

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As we look ahead to Imagining Everyday Life, our symposium on vernacular photography presented tomorrow and Saturday in New York with Columbia University and Barnard College, we are pleased to highlight a charming album from our vernacular collection, "The Girlfriend’s Album" from 1934. It is now on view in New York in Scrapbook Love Story: Memory and the Vernacular Photo Album.

Photography was invented in the early 19th century, but it was not until George Eastman produced the Kodak camera in 1888, that the medium shed its often-stifling formality. Previously, photographs were shot on plates and paper, sitters had to hold perfectly still, fearful that any movement would blur and ruin the shot. However, with the advent of the snapshot, photographers and their subjects could make their way through the world. They could pose and compose in nature; capture motion, action, and experimentation.

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Scrapbook Love Story, the third vernacular show series at The Walther Collection’s Project Space in New York, is dedicated to capturing this seismic shift in photographic practice and culture. The Girlfriend’s Album, from 1934 is emblematic of the highly playful, and often quite subversive quality of early 20th century snapshot culture. These photographs show unidentified women out in the woods (the woods, in many of these albums and collections prominently figure as a place of escape and inhibition, a theme that reaches back at least through medieval ballads like Robin Hood). Shot somewhere in Minnesota, this series portrays four girlfriends, consisting of close-up pictures of their faces, hands, and unclothed backs. This highly personal collection intimates something outside the dour sociability of the day.

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As the Girlfriend’s album shows, private moments of joy and self-expression were not simply captured on film. Snapshots inaugurated new social practices, performing for the camera, documenting your personal life, creating some space to rethink and reimagine one’s own identity.

– Julian Cosma

October 15, 2018, posted by Daniela Baumann

New Acquisition: Thomas Struth

Thomas Struth (born 1954) is best known for his landscape and architectural photography. Before turning to photography, however, Struth studied painting in the early 1970s with Gerhard Richter at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf; he would later join Bernd Becher's class in the department of Photography, whose influence remains significant on Struth’s work. The Walther Collection recently acquired six examples from his 2004 series "Paradise," which is composed of landscape photographs in both color and black and white for which Struth traveled around the world.

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In varying locales such as Bavaria, southern China, and North and South America, he photographed jungles, forests, and densely wooded areas with his typical neutral approach. His detailed images contain no animals, often little ground or sky, and relatively even atmospheric lighting. The compositions therefore highlight the patterns and structures of the different types of trees—towering straight, lush and intertwined, tropical or swampy. With their frank viewpoint and purposefully narrow framing, these natural scenes are almost dream-like, verdant worlds, creating the feel of an archetypical paradise.

– Sofia Paule

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October 1, 2018, posted by Daniela Baumann

"Scrapbook Love Story" Spotlight: Miss Black America Album

When one thinks of the Vietnam War, perhaps the first image that comes to mind is that of children burned, wailing, and running from a dense haze of napalm—the iconic photograph taken by Nick Út in the summer of 1972. However, war journalists were not the only people with cameras; the soldiers who were embroiled in this controversial war often carried cameras of their own and would take photos for more personal reasons. "Pictures are one of the few lasting material things a soldier brings back from Vietnam. Film will prove that there was a Vietnam and he was there," as an article from Tropic Lighting News in 1971 attests.

  • VP 4521 PaulLavallais Miss Black USA Album Cover Image 1971

The Walther Collection recently acquired one such memento of the war. Assembled by G.I. Paul LaVallais, this photo album documents a USO Miss Black America show in Vietnam in 1971. In an introductory foreword to his album, LaVallais proudly writes, "It's a day to long remember for all the GIs black and white who witness the Miss Black America Show, and another part of Black American History being made." Within the album, we see photographs of Miss Black America and her retinue performing on stage; in another photo, two African-American soldiers, lifted above the shoulders of their comrades, hold the Black Power Fist flag and cheer for the celebrities. Through this singularly personal collection of photographs with their hand-written captions, LaVallais conveys one soldier's experience in Vietnam in such a way that would be impossible to replicate through war photojournalism.

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At once unique yet also familiarly universal, photo albums such as LaVallais's provide glimpses into the everyday lives and social fabric of their time, and are the focus of our current exhibition, Scrapbook Love Story: Memory and the Vernacular Photo Album.

– Doris Lin

September 17, 2018, posted by Daniela Baumann

Occupying Wall Street

Today marks the eighth anniversary of the start of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Inspired by the Arab Spring and demonstrations on Cairo's Tahrir Square, Kalle Lasn, editor-in-chief of Adbusters magazine and nonprofit, wondered if similar pressure could be leveraged on the North American business sector. Barely three years after the international banking and financial crisis, Adbusters called on its followers to infiltrate the world's most important and recognizable business hub: "#OCCUPYWALLSTREET. Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? On Sept 17 [2011], flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street."

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Thousands of demonstrators heeded the call, flooding New York’s Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street would become the largest protest movement in North America within a few weeks—other US cities, including Washington DC, Bloomington, Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco and Philadelphia followed—with crowds insisting on greater control of the financial sector, reforms to an unfair tax system, as well as the reduction of social inequality between rich and poor. The ubiquitous slogan "We are the 99 percent!" refers to an essay by economics Nobel laureate Joseph Stieglitz, first published in Vanity Fair in 2011, in which he states that economic and political power resides with only one percent of the population. This gap between the outsized power of the one percent and the remaining 99 was the central premise of Occupy Wall Street and has remained an enduring symbol of social division.

  • Acs 1842 Accra Shepp Occupying Wall Street 72Dpi

Journalists and politicians often alleged that the movement was disorganized or lacked cohesive goals. To counter this coverage, Accra Shepp portrayed the demonstrators individually in order to give the protest and its surroundings a human face. Every week, he photographed twenty to thirty demonstrators, policemen, news reporters, and bystanders using a large format camera. The resulting series "Occupying Wall Street" shows a cross-section of American society: young and old, black and white, working and retired. Shepp presented his portraits in an exhibition in New York while Occupy took place, and has continuously expanded it with new images.

– Daniela Baumann & Juliane Peil

August 31, 2018, posted by Daniela Baumann

New Acquisition: Two children listen to "Max and Moritz" by Wilhelm Busch

Who doesn’t know the outrageous pranks of Max and Moritz? Since 1865, the picture book by Wilhelm Busch (German, 1832–1908) has delighted generations both young and old to the present day. Despite the fact that Busch's early work "Max and Moritz – A Boys' Tale in Seven Tricks" is mostly known in German speaking countries, it is one of the best-selling children's books worldwide, and has been translated into 300 languages and dialects.

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During the course of the darkly humorous tale, the wily boys Max and Moritz torment the inhabitants of their village: the widow Tibbets, the tailor Buck, the devout teacher Laempel, their uncle Fritz, the baker, and the farmer Miller. As with many subsequent works, Busch printed his drawings using the wood engraving technique. In fact, the combination of illustration and text is often credited as the forerunner of the comic strip.

  • Vp 5629 Walthercollection Unidentifiedphotographer Twochildrenlistentomaxmoritz Wilhelmbusch 1930S Row3

The Walther Collection has recently acquired 12 gelatin-silver prints of an unknown photographer which show two young girls – probably sisters, possibly even twins – who listen carefully to the seven pranks of Max and Moritz. The photographs from the 1930s are supplemented by text excerpts from the tale. It is very likely that the images document the girls' spontaneous reactions to the verses. Their facial expressions and gestures change from heartfelt laughter to questioning looks and frightened expressions, thus playfully reflecting the content of the narrative.

– Juliane Peil

June 28, 2018, posted by Daniela Baumann

New Acquisition: Heinz Lieber

Berlin's famous Alexanderplatz has been subject to many urban changes since the 1920s. Notably, the city center underwent a major reconstruction and reshaping in the 1950s after the public square and most of its surrounding buildings were destroyed in the Second World War. The post-war modernist style typical of 1960s architecture characterizes the cityscape up to the present day.

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Civil engineer and photographer Heinz Lieber documented this transformation of Berlin Alexanderplatz between 1968 and 1972 with numerous photographs. He typically assembled several single photographs into a panorama, creating a comprehensive view. One of our recent acquisitions shows from left to right: the house 'Berolina' by Peter Behrens (1929-1932), as well as several buildings from the 1960s including: the 'Centrum' department store (1967-70), the 'Interhotel Stadt Berlin' (1967-70, now called Park Inn), 'Haus der Elektroindustrie' (1967-69), 'Haus des Reisens' (1969-71), and 'Haus der Statistik' (1968-70). The panoramic view is complemented by a second work, showing the 'Haus des Lehrers' (1961-64) on the left and the TV Tower (1965-69).

– Juliane Peil

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December 30, 2017, posted by Zum Kuckuck

The New York Times listed “Recent Histories“ as one of the best photo books 2017

In 2017, The Walther Collection's catalog Recent Histories: Contemporary African Photography and Video Art was selected by The New York Times' Photography Critic Teju Cole as one of „The Best Photo Books“ of the year.

Edited by Daniela Baumann, Joshua Chuang, and Oluremi C. Onabanjo, Recent Histories unites the perspectives of fourteen contemporary artists of African descent, who investigate social identity, questions of belonging, an array of sociopolitical concerns, as well as personal experiences in Africa and the African Diaspora. In both highlighting specific artistic approaches, and studying the sites and collective platforms that enable these practices, the publication examines the critical mass that has gathered across generations of African image-makers and lens-based practitioners.

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