Portrait photography

The Shadow Archive: An Investigation of Vernacular Portrait Photography

The Shadow Archive: An Investigation of Vernacular Portrait Photography is an exhibition at the Walther Collection in New York City that examines the uses of photography to document, record, and identify individuals from the 1850s to the present day. The Shadow Archives inaugurates the collection’s series of multi-year exhibitions focused on the history of vernacular photography, utilitarian imagery produced primarily for commercial or personal rather than aesthetic purposes.

Entitled Imagining Everyday Life: Aspects of Vernacular Photography, the series of exhibitions examines the social and historical importance of non-artistic photography in a wide range of applications. It will include five exhibitions in New York City and an International University Symposium in fall 2018, culminating in May 2019 with a full exhibition curated by curator Brian Wallis (former chief curator of the International Center of Photography) at the Walther Collection in Neu-Ulm, Germany, and accompanied by a catalog co-published with Steidl.

The inaugural exhibition, The shadow archives, shows that from daguerreotypes of 19th century families to recent images of migrant farm workers, identification photographs have been used to sort, shape, separate and select subjects based on occupation, social group, body type or political affiliation. Covering a wide range of historical and contemporary objects, this fantastic exhibit includes a frame of sixteen 1860s tintypes of family members assembled to form a visual genealogy; a group of archival passport photos of thousands of similar images from California prisons in the 1890s; a sequence of views of a French medical patient demonstrating human emotions under hypnosis; a collection of eighty nearly identical ID badges from a WWII manufacturing plant; a roll of dozens of midwestern high school yearbook portraits from the 1980s; and a series of recent passport-style color portraits from a Ugandan studio, all with faces cut out. This exhibition poses several questions: can such utilitarian images be considered as portraits? What do they reveal about babysitters and their social roles? And what do they tell us about the significance of photography and representation today?

Taken for a wide variety of purposes, these photographs place little value on the originality, variety or aesthetic subtleties of the photographic style. Rather, they deliberately reproduce, and in fact draw upon, the conventions of the studio portrait genre. When applied to bureaucratic archives, these photographs establish an inventory of nearly identical images that can be compared to each other for identification within a state or corporate organization, such as photos of identity in the criminal justice system or passport photos for immigration. The social and even political needs of the models – barely perceptible signs of resistance, made evident by slight changes in pose or gesture – take on more meaning in such contexts than the motivations of photographers.

Also, these images challenge the bourgeois definition of the portrait as an honorary presentation or a window on the soul. Instead, they look more like fragments of what theorist and photographer Allan Sekula called “the shadow archives. Sekula meant by this the entire social field of human representations, both heroes and deviants, within which each portrait is inscribed in a moral hierarchy. The various, mostly unidentified individuals depicted in these portraits, often related to their work and employment, take positions that are endorsed or confirmed by their photographic documentation. Such serialized images do not make sense individually and are only relevant to each other and to shadow archives.

The Shadow Archives
December 8, 2017 – March 31, 2018
The Walther Collection Project Space
526 West 26th Street, Suite 718
New York, New York 10001
United States


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