In the photography world, there continues to be much ado about the medium’s status as a documentary (or worse, Truth-bearing) form. But go back well over 100 years to Alfred Stieglitz’s famed image Steerage (1907). In one simple frame, Stieglitz captures a “real” and evocative moment in history while simultaneously producing a fascinating early example of Modernism—jagged lines, dozens of perspectives, a world marked not by order but riotous, competing energies.
Thus, over a century ago, the debate about whether photography was “documentary” or “art” was settled—settled because the dichotomy was a false one. As the contemporary critic Richard Pitnick has written about Stieglitz’s work, “[he] demonstrated that essentially ‘documentary’ photographs could convey transcendental truths and fully embody all of the principles by which any graphic image was deemed ‘artistic.’”
It is in this spirit that the exhibition “Suis mon regard,” running at Galerie VU, was created. The show brings together some of the most iconic, visionary documentary photographers of our era—drawn from the venerable ranks of Agence VU’—with some of the great “artistic” photographic talents of today (represented by Galerie VU’). In the end, the show succeeds in bridging our disparate understandings of photography and unites them through the idea of vision: powerful, subjective and pure.
For Caroline Benichou, the curator of the show, organizing the exhibition represented a chance to open up the Agency’s rich archives (mostly editorial and documentary) and put them in dialogue with the photographic works of VU’ artists who are more typically shown in art galleries. Her discoveries are our gain, as we get the chance to see unfamiliar work from classic names, alongside fresh work from up-and-coming stars.
To be sure, VU’s exhibition is not the first to erase the arbitrary line between documentary and fine art. But as the institution of VU’ itself is uniquely able to draw on great photographers working in both traditions, the show does a particularly admirable job of taking classic documentarians and showing how their work is filled with the same distinctive, recognizable creator’s stamp as any renowned artist.
The show plays with “views” in many other ways as well. After all, at any moment when we gaze upon a photograph, a triangle of “regards” takes shape: the photographer’s, captured by the frame of the camera. The subject’s, frozen in the contents of the image. And the viewers’, our own, as we look onto the result. Whether unflinching and direct, discrete and side-long or wholly abstract, the exhibition is overflowing with views—from the artist to his/er world and then from our eyes onto what they saw.
Of course, there are moments of counterbalance as well. Times of looking and also of not looking (though even then, we, the viewer, are still drawn in to see what’s not there). For example, one of the strongest pieces of the show is called “The instant of my death (diptych)” [images 7 and 8 above]. In one picture, we see a dead body (with its face hidden). In the next, the body is gone; but our own gaze fills the void left behind. The show also includes a few abstract, empty horizons—for what is a horizon if not the line which defines the furthest extent of our view into the infinite distance?
The discoveries and conversations present in this packed show are innumerable: there is the cross-generational dialogues created, for example between Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt, one of the founding members of the Agency who worked in the heyday of press reportage, and a young practitioner like Maia Flore who pushes at the conceptual limits of the medium. Moments like these speak to the importance of continuity combined with evolution—photography moving forward while remaining in conversation with its rich past.
Finally, there is a great material variety on display as well: calotypes, lithographs, grainy black-and-white frames alongside pin-sharp color prints. There are even some exotic combinations thrown in, like ever-delicate graphite on paper, or chlorobromide transfers. For many of the photographers in the show, whose life’s work has appeared on newspaper pages and magazine covers, it was a pleasure to think through such questions of framing, size and support for the first time.
In the end, the exhibition is an inspiring display of the diversity contained in the photographic medium, its all-inclusive embrace. While we are forever falling into the tempting trap of false binaries—”art or documentary?”—these images remind us that we don’t have to choose. After all, it is dialogue (not disagreement) that is the hallmark of vitality and offers the most promising way forward into the future.
Editors’ Note: “Suis mon regard” will be showing at Galerie VU’ in Paris until January 2, 2016.
Below, you will find a brief video preview put together by the show’s curator. It gives just a small (yet enticing) overview of all the photographs on display. But as so much of the work plays with materiality, size and scale—we highly suggest you go in person if you have the chance!