Clark: impressive guest list highlight of forum

This Saturday, the Clark Art Institute welcomed the most distinguished collection of personalities the Williams art community has seen since the celebration of Lane Faison’s 90th birthday. The event bringing together these luminaries was a discussion/open forum, the climax of the Clark’s presentations in conjunction with its current “The Museum and the Photograph” exhibit.

“The Museum and the Photograph: Collecting Then/Collecting Now” featured five curators and assistant curators of photography wings from important museums across the nation and abroad. On hand were Mark Haworth-Booth, curator of photographs at London’s Victoria and Albert museum (whose photographs are featured at the Clark exhibit); John Szarkowski, curator of photography emeritus at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; Malcolm Daniel, assistant curator, photography department, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sandra Phillips, curator of photography at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art; and Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the John Paul Getty Museum.

The event opened with an introduction by Clark curator Michael Conforti, who explained it as a way of deepening interest in and focus on the exhibit and, on a broader scale, the role of photography in art and museum life.

Conforti gave control to the panel of guests, who delivered a series of individual presentations. Szarkowski traced photography collecting back to MOMA’s humble beginnings: the willingness of the fledgling museum to collect less traditional forms of art helped it to blossom swiftly. Daniel and Phillips followed Szarkowski’s lead, offering their own stories of the history of the photography departments of their respective museums.

Haworth-Booth examined photography collecting from a more theoretical standpoint. Citing numerous examples from the later years of the Victoria and Albert collection, he pointed out the importance of collecting different prints, plates, and negatives of photographs, as minor differences present in each medium provide a fuller picture of the artist and his work. Naef brought up similar points in his discussion of collecting, which made light of the Getty Museum’s role as a device for education as well as exhibition.

But the presentations were a mere prelude to the panel discussion that was to follow. The real heart of the event was found in this forum, which allowed the curators to interact with the audience and each other in a virtually unconstrained format. Conforti initially asked the curators themselves to pose questions to each other before soliciting questions from the audience.

The result was a stimulating hour of discourse that addressed many vital issues facing photography and museum collecting. Haworth-Booth posed the issue of photograph copies: in fact, many photographs exhibited are either printed by an assistant or copied later from original plates.

This brings up a number of potentially problematic issues, ranging from semantic to moral concerns. The panel attacked a number of these concerns in an intellectual but accessible manner. Szarkowski alluded to the importance of copies in understanding the body of work of an artist, citing historical precedent: “How much would we know about Greek sculpture if we only collected originals?” Naef agreed with Szarkowski’s argument, but also addressed the role of the copies themselves, urging for documentation of the copier as well as the photographer.

Another issue addressed was the balanced that must be reached between exhibition and preservation. Naef described an impressive collection of Getty photographs that will never be shown in order to preserve its integrity. The panel supported, first and foremost, the importance of preserving art as much as possible, but acknowledged the need to show all that can be shown to the public. Daniel noted that many museums, the Met included, often display facsimiles when the originals are particularly delicate. Szarkowski went a step further, asserting that photography, like watercolor, will inevitably decay over time and stating that letting pictures fade on display is preferable to letting them fade in storerooms.

Throughout the forum, the panelists interacted in a lively, elucidating fashion, and the crowd responded in kind. Although many attendees left immediately after the opening presentations, those who remained were for the most part eager to ask questions.

All in all, “Collecting Then/Collecting Now” was well received and informative. The Clark, with its exhibit and its series of applicable lectures and discussions, has, as Conforti hoped, deepened understanding of photography as a distinct form of art.

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