‘Material Witnesses’ defies mundane preconceptions

Imagine visiting a museum exhibit in fifty years to see a photograph documenting your dinner plate.

Material Witnesses: The Photography of Things, on display at the Clark until April 11, challenges the common practice of defining a photograph by the direct interpretation of its subjects. Instead, the exhibition questions what documentary photography tells its viewers about the artist. These 13 photographs, as well as one accompanying display, were never meant to be viewed as works of art. They document their everyday subjects, varying from museum exhibitions to ferns, in the straightforward manner of textbooks. Material Witnesses brings these works together to reveal a new lens through which to interpret them.

The collection seems random at first sight: Beginning with a collection of porcelain, it progresses to photographs of sculpture, then furniture, then architecture. Time stands still in the small and dimly lit exhibition; it is closed off from the rest of the hall by two partial walls. Almost every photograph is in black and white, as if the exhibition was designed for a spartan world.

Its austere nature serves only to emphasize the highly individual characteristics of each work. William Henry Fox Talbot, who photographed “Articles of China” (1844), called his work a “mute testimony.” The photograph is of a porcelain collection, varying from large latticed bowls to painted figurines, set on a series of four shelves. He intended it to function purely as an insurance policy for their owner; should one be stolen, he argues in his book The Pencil of Nature, it would be far easier to show a photograph in court than try to match it to a written description.

What is fascinating about his image is its artificial sense of organization. Large objects, such as serving bowls and vases, are placed in the center of each shelf, composing an axis of symmetry of sorts. Meanwhile, other objects, such as teacups, are paired by function and arranged on either side of the central objects. The meticulous effort Talbot puts in to create a sense of symmetry is eminently human. Art is often perceived as effortless – we appreciate and criticize the final product, not the rejected layers of paint beneath or the scrapped attempts. “Articles of China” defies this preconceived notion, and the rejection of art as an image of perfection is one continued throughout the exhibition.

“Reflection in a Piece of Photographed Furniture” (1862), by French architectural photographer Louis-Emile Durandelle, presents an elaborate oval dresser mirror, supported by a small table with bowed legs, next to an antique chair with a puffed seat cushion. Had this photograph been flawless, it could easily have been featured in a catalog or reference book. Yet it is its flaws which create character. The camera, for one, appears in the mirror; Slightly off-center, its lens points directly at the viewer in a confrontational manner. For another, the top of the photograph is out of focus. Though the white blanks show Durandelle attempted to cut this out, a blurred part of the mirror remains as a testimony to his imperfection. Even the crinkled sheet in the background reminds the viewers that art need not always be an idealized vision whose every attribute is rationalized and accounted for.

Across from this piece is a cyanotype photograph called “Osmunda Eegalis – North Europe.” Taken in 1850 by an anonymous artist, it shows the white outline of a fern (Osmunda Eegalis) against an azure background. Cyanotype photography demands a direct interaction between subject and film: The subject is placed against the film, which is then exposed to light. Once iron salts are applied, the exposed area turns a bright blue.

Directly next to the cyanotype is the original fern used to take the photograph. The differences are striking. The cyanotype is vibrant and alive. Its leaves give an appearance of fullness, despite the limitations of its two-dimensionality. The “real” fern, now pressed and preserved, is held in place with thin string, its leaves and stem withered into brittleness. Youth and old age, life and death, beauty and ugliness: These concepts are implicitly juxtaposed through this side-by-side pairing.

“The viewer is left to interpret this forensic evidence,” says the introduction to the exhibition, “to make sense of each picture’s particular account of the past and the real.” Documentary photography, this exhibition declares, is neither dead nor static. A wealth of meaning springs from searching the photographs for the qualities that make this art form human rather than ideal. Beyond redefining our perception of its photographs, Material Witnesses forces us to question how we approach art and, perhaps, ourselves.

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