Art Review by Leann Schneider
Photography is a tricky beast, and one Art People love to discuss. What is true photography? What makes a ‘good’ photograph? Is every type of photography fine art? Is anyone with a fancy-pants camera a photographer? Photographs themselves, while being a constant in anyone’s life who uses the Internet, also demand a level of scrutiny. What is this image telling me? Is it real or is it manipulated? Who took this photograph and why are they presenting it to me? What is the story behind this image? The Akron Art Museum’s major temporary exhibition, Proof, presents and reflects on these questions.
Running through October 25, 2015, Proof, showcases works of photography from the museum’s collection. The exhibition’s curator Arnie Tunstall explains, “most of the work in Proof is found out in the world – a ‘document’ caught by the artist and a bit out of their control.” Beginning with the dawn of documentary photography during the Civil War, through the works of Lewis W. Hine in the early 20th century documenting the poor conditions of child laborers, to more recent examples of artists like Robert Glen Ketchum using their photography to advocate for nature conservation, Proof delves into one broad and rich portion of the museum’s collection of photography.
Proof provides works from well-known classic photographers such as Walker Evans, known for his poignant Depression-era portraits, and Weegee – a pioneer of street photography. A myriad of contemporary photographers are also represented: some documenting the Midwestern landscape or a bustling city, others capturing private and quiet moments. Some of the images are hard to decipher on first glance; only after skimming the wall-chats to see phrases like, “My Wife and Cancer,” or “Civil War” or “The Cuyahoga Valley” does the photographer’s motivation take shape.
Lovers of photography, both professional and Instagram-esque, will find the exhibition compelling. Tunstall is a photographer himself and though he used a traditional curatorial approach for Proof he maintains, “I cannot turn off the part of me that sees these images through the eyes of the photographer – many of whom I am in awe of.” By walking through the galleries, one can examine how documentary photography has morphed, while exploring individual artists’ approaches to sometimes-similar issues.
When asked his opinion on the contemporary state of artistic photography in terms of ease-of-use, camera accessibility and photograph distribution, Tunstall remarked, “I could go on and on about this. I don’t know that any of it is positive or negative…A camera is just a tool for image making – and in the hands of an artist, they make amazing images – on a Polaroid in the 1970s, a big field camera in the Civil War, or on an iPhone today.” He, along with photographers, journalists and curators will certainly cover the topic at their September 17th panel discussion at the Akron Art Museum.
The images in Proof have a weighty presence. Both the 150-year-old images and those taken just a few years ago have the power to move a twenty-first-century audience – even if we’re unsure of exactly the message they’re trying to send. The Akron Art Museum certainly has an impressive collection of photography; if we’re lucky, perhaps we will see more of it in the future.
Leann Schneider is a graduate student at Kent State University pursuing an MA in Art History and an MLIS with a concentration in Museum Studies. She also works as a curatorial assistant at the Kent State University Museum. You can contact Leann at email@example.com.