Photographs, because of their immediacy—the quick click of the shutter, capturing a fleeting moment—are usually considered to be harbingers of an absolute truth. Yet, embedded within each picture is the more elaborate story behind it, the history and the experience conjured to capture an exact moment on film. And so, there are often two ways to read a photograph—the visceral one, the instant response to what is depicted; and the story behind the shot, of how the photographer got to this moment and what he or she has brought to it. Both are legitimate ways to “read” an image, complementing and expanding on each other, as well as broadening our knowledge in new ways.
Over the years, some photographs have become icons of a particular message, though implicated wrongly in a story line. The Steerage, by the innovative twentieth-century photographer Alfred Stieglitz, is among the most notorious of these. It is often interpreted as a stark examination of immigrants disembarking from the unsavory depths of steerage (as compared to the wealthier patrons seen overhead) to seek their fortune in the New World—thus, an image of hope. The photograph was, in fact, taken by Stieglitz as he was boarding a ship bound for Germany, and these immigrants are actually returning to their homelands, disenchanted with the life they found in the United States.
Similarly, Alexander Gardner’s devastating documentary scenes of the Civil War show desolate fields filled with fallen soldiers. Gardner, who was appalled by the destruction of the war, actually staged many of these images, frequently moving bodies to improve the composition of the scene. He also posed live men as dead in order to create the dramatic affect—effective as a gruesome depiction of the results of war but not necessarily “true” in every sense.
This exhibition examines a wide-ranging collection of photographs and their stories, all gifts or loans from alumni collections. Although a picture is worth a thousand words, the words, too, can magnify and alter the significance of the image, providing new ways of seeing. Museum collections are dependent on the gifts of works of art, and the photography collection at the Johnson Museum has been well served by its alumni. We are extremely grateful to Steven and Ann Ames; Sandra and David Berler; the late William Chapman; Gary Davis; the late Albert Dorskind; Ira, Gale, and Jennifer Drukier; Andy Grunberg and Merry Foresta; Diana Karnas and Abe Tomás Hughes II; Michael Jacobs; Tom and Diann Mann; Sherry and Joel Mallin; Ronay and Richard Menschel; Arthur and Marilyn Penn; Barbara and Eugene Polk; Alan Siegel; Don Weiss; and Joan and Clark Worswick for their help and generosity.
This exhibition was funded in part by a grant from the Cornell Council for the Arts.
Nancy E. Green
Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs