Who We Are
Portraits and Vernacular Photography

6/9/2024 — 3/30/2025

Photobooth Portraits with caption

The Walther Collection is pleased to present Who We Are: Portraits and Vernacular Photography, opening at our Museum Campus in Neu-Ulm, Germany on June 9, 2024. Who We Are is the first part in a three-year exhibition survey dedicated to vernacular photography, the broad category of everyday images that shape and define our lives and that one might see on a passport, in an old family photo album, in a magazine, or even online. Curated by Brian Wallis, Daniela Yvonne Baumann, and Melek Baylas, the exhibition aims to examine vernacular photography with the same critical attention generally devoted to contemporary fine-art photography, and to consider these familiar but often overlooked photographic practices within specific social and cultural histories.

In particular, Who We Are looks at vernacular photographic likenesses and the everyday cultural factors that shape individual and collective subjectivities. Like conventional portraits, these humble images demonstrate the modernist fascination with identity, the individual, and the human face. But unlike historical portraiture, these commonly made pictures serve a variety of practical, personal, commercial, and bureaucratic purposes. They eschew the idealized attributes of individuality, self-reliance, and psychological interiority associated with modernist portraits, while demonstrating socially inflected markers of race, class, gender, sexuality, and status.

Mugshots Grid
Unidentified photographers, "American Mug Shots," 1908–32

The exhibition is divided into five thematic sections—“Against Portraiture,” “Decolonized: Changing Visions of African Identity,” “Ways of Seeing Gender Identity,” “Photo Albums: Archiving Everyday Life,” and “The Photographic Object.” These installations are displayed in various buildings throughout The Walther Collection’s Museum Campus. While not comprehensive, these focused case studies offer new ways of seeing familiar images and original perspectives on everyday social histories.

The White Cube, "Against Portraiture"

Traditionally, painted and photographic portraits have been considered as honorific markers of social status. The presentation in the main exhibition space of the White Cube reconsiders the portrait in relation to vernacular photography, and suggests that not all photographic likenesses are traditional portraits. Rather, what might be called “identification photographs” are simply records of human faces compiled to situate individuals within social hierarchies and bureaucratic archives, from the family record to the police mugshot. Such identification photographs have long been used to sort, shape, segregate, and categorize citizens based on occupation, social group, body type, or political affiliation. Across five thematic sections—Family, Labor, Play, Types, and Regulation—this installation reorients the viewer to different questions pertinent to the uses of identification photographs, including changing notions of work and leisure, gender and sexuality, and race and ethnicity. Looking at how individuals are represented and positioned within specific social systems questions both the uniqueness of the conventional portrait and the notion of a stable, authentic self.

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Munemasa Takahashi, "The Lost and Found Project," 2011–12

"Against Portraiture," Family

Families, the bedrock social unit of the modern era, were fortified by the new capacity for photographic representation. Either as group sittings or as collections of individual portraits, photography allowed families to memorialize their genealogies in a single frame or family record. Later, the family photo album evolved as the universally accepted form for the personal and creative narration of family gatherings, rituals, travels, and events, and as a means of communal expression and domestic self-definition.

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Unidentified photographer, "Victorian Family," 1860
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Mayall, Ghémar Frères, Jabez Hughes, and W. & D. Downey, "Portraits of Queen Victoria," ca. 1870
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Manuel García Fernández, "Portraits of various couples," ca. 1940

"Against Portraiture," Labor

Nineteenth-century workers and craftsmen often posed proudly with the tools of their trade in studio photographs and tintypes. These occupational images were signifiers of social and professional status. Later, photo-based identification cards, ID badges, and licenses were typically required at sites of employment, especially where issues of security and surveillance were involved. But workers also frequently desired group photographs that represented their collective labors and group identification, as with the Appalachian coal miners gathering for panoramic photos.

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Unidentified photographers, "Occupational portraits," ca. 1865–75
Vp 3864 Walthercollection Unidentifiedphotographer Migrantfarmworkers Ca1980 Grid
Unidentified photographer, "Migrant farmworkers," ca. 1990

"Against Portraiture," Play

Photographs provide detailed documentation, but they also provide entertainment. They can capture celebrities and performers, as well as daily fun and games. Even before the advent of popular photography in the 1890s, sitters played a significant collaborative role in establishing their self-expression and cultural identity in the photographic likenesses. In studio settings, customers were able to pose, with pride or humor, in clothes and props of their own choosing. At carnivals and tourist venues, photographers sometimes provided cartoonlike drawings to playfully amplify the sitters’ appearances.

Comic Studio Tintype Grid
Unidentified photographers, "Comic Studio Tintypes," ca. 1864–1900
Mike Mandell Baseball Cards 3x4
Mike Mandell, "The Baseball Photographer Trading Cards," 1975

"Against Portraiture," Types

One way of establishing sovereignty over another culture or community is through stereotypical or dehumanizing imagery. In the nineteenth century, anthropologists and social scientists often divided social groups into “types,” classified by racial or cultural similarities and depicted as representative examples. These typological photographs of indigenous subjects were often placed in idealized studio settings or sexualized in the manner of their dress and presentation. In popular culture forms, such as touristic postcards, these “types” were circulated as images representing the whole culture, and as primitivist signs of cultural difference.

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Unidentified photographer, Inscribed: "Zulu Girl (Ingodusi), S. Africa," 1919
Chinese Steroviews
Unidentified photographer, "Stereoviews of China," 1910–20s

"Against Portraiture," Regulation

Identify photographs and facial recognition are key components of most archives of social regulation and policing. From driver’s licenses to prison mugshots, the standardized headshot allows one image to be compared to another based on physiognomic differences. For such identity photographs, the character or personality of the sitter—the hallmark of the bourgeois portrait—is irrelevant. These ordinary images lack meaning individually, and assume relevance only comparatively, in relation to one another.

The studies of criminologist Alphonse Bertillon and geneticist Francis Galton applied objective methodologies to photographic archives in order to create standards for the classification and identification of antisocial types. Mug shots, such as the ones included in this exhibition, were invented as a comparative model of facial recognition and body forms, used to predict criminal types and to judge one individual’s character against another or against a statistical median.

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Alphonse Bertillon, "Identification anthropométrique. Instructions signalétiques," 1885
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Thomas Cunningham, "Criminal Photographs, no. 19," ca. 1885

The White Cube, "The Photographic Object"

In its physical form, the photograph is more than an image. It is also the material from which other things can be built. The hybrid objects shown here all incorporate or frame vernacular photographs of individuals in some way, including photo-sculptures from Mexico, a jigsaw puzzle, a breadbox full of naughty photos, a heart-shaped ashtray, and freestanding photographic cutouts, called "humanettes." These inventive objects constitute a form of three-dimensional collage, an adaptation of the ubiquitous photographic image to the specificities of domestic decoration. Made by amateurs or professionals alike, these outsider-art-like objects retain a quirky and irreverent attitude toward portraiture and popular photographic imagery.

Pornographers Breadbox
Unidentified photographer, "Pornographer's breadbox," ca. 1905–40
Framed couple mexican sculpture
Unidentified maker, "Portrait of a woman," ca. 1950
Framed Couple Suitecase
Unidentified maker, "Salesman's sample suitcase with 2 oval photographs," 1910s
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Unidentified maker, "Photo cut-out statuettes," ca. 1940
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Unidentified maker, "Photo-jigsaw puzzle," 1932
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John W. Rogers, "Scherenschnitt” with photographic self-portrait," ca. 1870

The Black House, "Photo Albums: Archiving Everyday Life"

Photo albums are compelling mediums through which to curate, arrange, and record personal narratives and archives. The presentation in the Black House reflects the myriad of ways that photo albums not only document significant life events such as weddings, family celebrations, or travel, but also serving as an instrument of self-representation, facilitated by the construction of distinct identities and personal memories.

Album Cover Wall
Installation: Photo Albums and Scrapbooks

Echoing the dynamics in modern technology such as social media, photo albums often depict an idealized or reimagined version of reality, accentuating and rearranging everyday moments, successes, and one’s individual appearance while eliding less favorable aspects of their lives. This selective portrayal aimed to stage a positive and aspirational image for external consumption, reflecting desired self-images rather than objective realities.

Vp 5594 Girl Growing Up for Web
Ethel Buddle Atkinson, "Girl Growing Up," 1930–46

This compilation of photo albums aims to reconstitute these photographic objects and cultural artifacts—perhaps forgotten or discarded by those personally connected to their original owners—not only as treasured recollections but as belonging to a social world.

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Richard Hicks Bowman (compiler), "Military-stamp scrapbook album," 1943–59
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Virginia Becker (compiler), "Scrapbook love story," 1941–43

The Gray House, "Ways of Seeing Gender Identity"

The Gray House explores three thematical focal points of “Ways of Seeing Gender Identity,” introducing photography as a critical means to examine and deconstruct traditional concepts of gender and sexuality. Across various mediums from news coverage to social media platforms, magazines, and advertisements, these images look at how photography shapes our ideas of how we should live, look, and behave—especially when it comes to gender identities.

Ways of Seeing Gender Identity Grid
1) Adolfo Patiño "The Forbidden Land of Terry Holiday," 1979; 2) Unidentified photographer, "Dear Martin," 1968
3) Unidentified photographer, "Bobbie Thompson," ca. 1963; 4) Eugene von Bruennchenhein, "Portrait of Marie," ca. 1950

As much as photography can be an instrument of control and standardization, it can also function as a platform and safe space for people who position themselves beyond conventional heteronormative gender roles. By presenting different perspectives and strategies, the works in the Gray House encourage dialogue and reflection, that expand contemporary considerations of gender identity today and to recognize photography’s potential as a catalyst for social change and empowerment.

Female Wrestlers Album 1249b
Unidentified photographers, "Female Wrestling Albums," 1970s
Female Wrestlers Album 1307b

The Green House, "Decolonized: Changing Visions of African Identity"

Photographic representations of African subjects have shaped how they are seen by others and how they see themselves. Looking at aspects of African identity within the context of European colonialism, this presentation considers four historical moments—mid-nineteenth-century cartes de visite made by European photographers, early twentieth century postcards illustrating African “types” to European audiences, the liberatory Apartheid-era portraits of S. J. “Kitty” Moodley, and the 1997 slideshow of contemporary photographer Santu Mofokeng titled The Black Photo Album/ Look at Me.

Kimberly Studio CD Vs
Cartes de visite from Kimberley Studio (New Rush, Diamond Fields), South Africa, ca. 1870s

In The Black Photo Album, Mofokeng provides a methodology for reflecting on the historical uses and contemporary meanings of vernacular photography. Juxtaposing found family photographs from the early twentieth century with contemporary critical questions, Mofokeng asks, “Are these images evidence of mental colonization or did they serve to challenge prevailing images of 'The African' in the western world?”

Black Photo Album three men
Santu Mofokeng, "The Black Photo Album / Look at Me: 1890–1950," 1997
© Santu Mofokeng Foundation. Courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg

In dialogue with Mofokeng are earlier historical images of African subjects staged by colonial photographers and the astonishing studio portraits taken by photographer Singarum Jeevaruthnam "Kitty" Moodley in South Africa in the 1970s. These portraits, taken during Apartheid, portray poor and working-class patrons playing with traditional and modernist modes of dress and displaying cross-cultural challenges to socially accepted family, ethnic, and gender roles.

SJM 2564ex Moodley
Singarum Jeevaruthnam "Kitty" Moodley, "Portraits from Kitty's Studio," ca. 1975
SJM 2563ex Moodley

Who We Are: Portraits and Vernacular Photography is the culmination of the The Walther Collection's exploration of vernacular photography through the multi-year exhibition series “Imagining Everyday Life: Aspects of Vernacular Photography” at the Collection’s former Project Space in New York from 2017 to 2019, curated by Brian Wallis; a two-day international symposium at Columbia University in 2018; and a major scholarly catalogue, awarded the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation prize for Photography Catalogue of the Year in 2020.

Symposium at Columbia University, 2018

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"Imagining Everyday Life: Engagements with Vernacular Photography" Symposium at Columbia University, 2018
© Nancy Datres

In 2018, The Walther Collection, with The Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University and The Barnard Center for Research on Women, presented a two-day symposium entitled Imagining Everyday Life: Engagements with Vernacular Photography. The symposium articulated the multiple definitions of vernacular photography within a newly expanded field of critical investigation, reconsidering the context and meaning of often overlooked photographic practices and tracing their specific social histories. Bringing together speakers from a wide range of academic disciplines, presentations considered vernacular photography in diverse stylistic forms, utilitarian applications, and regional variants. With examples ranging from ethnographic records to criminal mugshots to family photo albums, the discussions offered new ways to think about photography in relation to our political communities, social agency, and daily personal rituals.

Participants included: Ariella Azoulay, Geoffrey Batchen, Ali Behdad, Elspeth H. Brown, Tina M. Campt, Clément Chéroux, Lily Cho, Nicole R. Fleetwood, Sophie Hackett, Patricia Hayes, Marianne Hirsch, Gil Hochberg, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Thy Phu, Leigh Raiford, Shawn Michelle Smith, Drew Thompson, Brian Wallis, Laura Wexler, and Deborah Willis.

Imagining everyday life 001

Imagining Everyday Life: Engagements with Vernacular Photography

Edited by Tina M. Campt, Marianne Hirsch, Gil Hochberg, and Brian Wallis

In this major catalog dedicated to vernacular photography, the authors reevaluate the agency of the makers, compilers, subjects, and viewers of vernacular images and highlight the social roles they play. These new approaches recast existing histories of photography and insert into those narratives objects and questions that have been in large part ignored or erased.

Published by Steidl / The Walther Collection, May 2020

432 pages; 24.5 x 17 cm; softcover; ISBN 978-3-95829-627-5;

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