A Gust of Photo-Philia: Photography in the Art Museum

A Gust of Photo-Philia: Photography in the Art Museum
Alexandra Moschovi

Leuven University Press, The Lieven Gevaert Series, Leuven, BE, 2020
332 pp., illus. b/w. Paper, €59.50; eBook, €45
ISBN: 9789462702424; ISBN: 9789461663696.

Reviewed by Old
Jan Baetens
April 2021

At surface level, the subject of this wonderfully researched and documented study of Alexandra Moschovi, Associate Professor of Photography and Digital Media at the University of Sunderland, looks very simple. It retraces the history of how photography entered the art museum, a place where it initially did not have access to, and how this history has been a local as well as global phenomenon, as demonstrated by the five case studies that constitute the core of this book: MoMA, Tate, the Guggenheim, the V&A, and the Centre Pompidou. Moschovi unpacks these histories in great detail and a sharp eye for context, but also with great writing pleasure and craft, which makes her study almost a page-turner (one only regrets the absence of an index, a persisting lack in too many continental academic publications). The inventive illustration policy, not focusing on individual works or authors but on exhibition design exclusively, is very astute, since it allows for immediate and pertinent comparisons between the way in which these five trend-setting institutions had to rethink the singularities of their respective venues to accommodate a medium that was once new but that is now central to any modern and contemporary art museum.

Important as these institutional histories may be, each of the five case studies being almost a small book in itself, the key questions raised by the author go far beyond the mere encounter and eventually quasi-merger of a certain medium and a certain type of venue cum premises. The real stakes are those that must have popped up in any reader’s mind while going through the first paragraph of this review, which seems uncritically or unproblematically use terms such as “photography” and “art museum” (the two keywords of the book’s subtitle). What this study is about is the mutual interaction between photography and art museum and the progressive but radical changes that have been characterizing them since various decades, if not much longer (only the Centre Pompidou, which opened in 1977, is a relatively new museum, more precisely a new institution that also absorbed an already existing art museum). Photography today is totally different from what it used to be some decades ago, and its changes cannot be reduced to the shift from photography as a documentary medium to photography as an artistic medium or the disruptive appearance of digitization. Neither is an art museum today what it has been representing for many years, namely the semi-closed deposit of canonical art works as chosen and treasured by political elites and artistic connoisseurs. Photography is no longer a medium, be it a specific one, different from all other ones, or instead a medium that own its existence and prestige to its links with other media such as painting. The definition of photography has literally exploded, in technological terms but also in social, artistic, political, and institutional terms. It has become a practice, more precisely a way of addressing and questioning all other media as well as all possible media practices in any context and for any purpose whatsoever. The same goes for the notion of art museum, which is no longer a place displaying a certain type of art (high art, mainstream art, Western art, elite art, etc.). A museum has become a crossroads, where multiple types of interactions between different types of audiences and with all kinds of aims are taking place under new forms of direction, curation, participation and last but not least contestation. As Moschovi’s book makes clear, this double change, that of photography and that of the art museum, are actually one and the same phenomenon, or more precisely two aspects or dimensions of one broader change. The transformations of the art museum and the metamorphoses of photography are mutually dependent and mutually determining. Either one of these changes is the leverage of the other one.

The five case studies put meat on these theoretical bones. In each case, the point of departure is chronological. According to the institution under scrutiny, Moschovi first analyzes the place occupied by photography in the museum’s holdings, policy, and DNA. Not all of the five museums are interested in photography from the start, and the type of photography they accept or reject is far from being always the same (an art and science museum such as the V&A, with its strong focus on design, is lightyears away from the Guggenheim, which started as a collection of “non-objective” painting). She then examines the reasons of the changes of this place and policy, carefully watching at all the possible stakeholders, ranging from public funding bodies and private investors to artists, librarians, archivists, curators, gallerists, collectors, and the audience which becomes progressively more diverse (less elite, less white, less male, less old, in short less mainstream). Key in this regard is the interplay with the changing conceptions of photography itself. For certain museums, at certain moments, photography will be allowed provided it reflects the vision of “real” artists (preferably not born photographers but painters or sculptors having decided to diversify their output: for some, for instance, Bill Brandt is okay, but as an “artist”, not just as a “photographer”). For others, at other moments, it will be supported, sometimes very actively, when it matches broader artistic and aesthetic choices of the direction and the tenured staff (in MoMa, the decision to bring photography to the fore in the 1930s and 40s is perfectly in line with the defense of medium specificity in art). Still for others, photography will serve as a laboratory for the dismantling of old borders. Certain museum had compartmentalized collections and services, which at a certain moment of time had proven a real obstacle to innovation, while the impossibility to separate most forms of contemporary photography from apparently non-photographic practices such as architecture or political activism, made it the ideal tool for the supersession of outlived organizational structures. The Centre Pompidou, which is not a museum in the strict sense of the word, was keen to do this from the very beginning, but eventually it had to integrate more specialized sections on photography. In the case of Tate instead the move toward photography involved a dramatic internal revolution. And still other institutions found in photography an answer to the challenges raised by financial issues and the necessity to develop new business models (in the case of the Guggenheim, there is a strong relationship between the creation of foreign branches and the almost hegemonic position of photography, easier and cheaper to include in traveling exhibitions).

Whatever the case, Moschovi never falls prey to single or teleological stories. She not only takes great care in studying the complex interactions, complicities but also rivalries between all kind of stakeholders and internal as well as external constraints. She is also very keen to highlight the sometimes conflicting directions that institutions take at certain moments, while describing with great precision and an outstanding sense of clarity and pedagogy the multiple shifts, dead ends, failures, and unforeseen circumstances that force or encourage museums to update and critically revise their own preferences and decisions. By doing so, Moschovi succeeds in writing a new form of art history, with museums and photography as key players, which strikes the right balance between internal (artistic, historical) and external (political, financial, social) perspectives and concerns. Two or more worlds, perhaps, but the author gives us the best of them by bringing them together in this innovative study.