search by: photographer or subject?


Stephen Shore

How did aesthetics come to dominate so in journalism anyway? I think it’s somewhat natural. Part of the problem is that we have a serious fetish for grouping similar-looking things together. (I admit it, at least once in my childhood I was that obsessive kid who sorted and resorted all the buttons in the sewing box into different combinations for no reason. Just to see.) When a museum mounts a show, more often than not it focuses on the aesthetic of a given time, the milieu or influences/influencees of certain famous photographers, rather than on how certain subjects have been depicted differently in different times. It’s the high art version of celebrity fixation. I can see how this would be an effective way to shed light on artistic movements where stylistic change is paramount, but it’s somewhat inappropriate with documentary subjects.

I’d like to see a lot more content-driven rather than photographer-driven shows, but unfortunately probably only the large institutions have the depth of inventory and organizing clout to do it. And as a practical matter, it’s a lot easier to organize a show with one or two photographers than 10 or 20. (Though I did manage to see Into the Sunset at the MOMA and that was a great show, though the subject of the American West is a rather broad and amorphous one.)

But it’s not just a problem of inadequate inventory. Depth of knowledge is basically a barrier to entry. You not only need to have a piece, you need to know that it exists in the first place and it’s a lot easier search and sort by milieu than content (looking forward to the metadata revolution, anyone?). And when physical objects like books are sorted according to content via the Library of Congress method (and that’s only if you have access to a library with serious horsepower), it’s a pain to check out the work of one particular photographer. Can’t we have our cake and eat it too?

One could argue that it’s good that someone needs to amass a deep knowledge of the field before taking on curatorial responsibilities, but while I admire anyone who’s worked in their field for a long time, with some things, I believe the faster we can do them, the better off we are. If someone has an idea, then by all means, I consider it good to be able to bring that to fruition as quickly and efficiently as they’d like. I suppose doing it a slower and more trial/error way builds character though. (Have you ever noticed that it’s mostly unpleasant things that build character?)

Even on the internet it’s hard to search by subject. Say I want to see fine art and documentary work on our car-driven culture. What search terms do I Google to find the critically acclaimed and renowned work as opposed to random shots of cars? Put it this way – what terms do I have to search for to see Andrew Bush’s Vector series? Where’s the database where I can search fine art and documentary photos by subject and get results for projects about actual car culture rather than just photos with cars in them? Will it always be my obligation to sort the two ‘manually’? Do I type “photography car culture” into the MOMA search box? (Tried it – meh.) In a nutshell, how do I find what I’m looking for unless I already know what I’m looking for, aside from paying attention indefinitely til I stumble upon it?

(I will have to approach an art librarian, see if I’m employing deficient search methods.)

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~ by Jin on July 1, 2009.

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