The theme of the 2015 Hamburg Triennale of Photography is “The Day Will Come.” Across the city, exhibition halls, galleries and old warehouses have been re-purposed to examine the question of the future—in photography, and in general.
These days, it is fashionable to discuss (often in worried tones) the overwhelming onslaught of images that surround us. What to make of the x xx hundreds of millions of photographs uploaded each xx seconds? How are we to handle the fact that our society’s communications are transforming from word-based to image-based? And what does this all mean, of course, for photography itself?
What these questions share, besides an alarming tone, is a belief that our time and our specific moment in history is somehow unique, in some way fundamentally different than the past. What this fascinating exhibition offers is much longer view on these questions. While today’s rampant exchange of digital photos is certainly rampant—it’s not wholly new.
In presenting over 200 historical works from the museum’s collection and setting them in counterpoint with a dozen contemporary artistic projects, we see how photography has always played a role in capturing, storing and sharing visual impressions, since the medium’s earliest days. After all, what is photography but the sharing of two gazes—originally the photographer’s and then each subsequent viewer’s.
The exhibition is divided into 10 chapters built around the theme of “Sharing,” each of which helps organize the comparison between past and present. For example, the Instagram followers of yore were well represented in the 19th century cartes des visites. These cards, which came with a small photo of their owner, were very popular to collect. Of course, you would have your friends’ cards (as you follow your friends on social media today), but people were also keen to include the cards of celebrities—the actresses, singers and beauties of that time. In other words, Beyoncé, with her 38.5 million Instagram followers, is not so much a revolution as an evolution.
Meanwhile, our era’s (over)shared vacation photos had a predecessor in the travel photographer Fratelli Alinari. Beginning in 1860, he produced photographs that allowed the art treasures of Italy to be shared in living rooms across the Continent. While the number of images he produced pales in comparison to the number of Mona Lisa selfies that were created since you began reading this review, the animating idea of “sharing the world” through photographs was remarkably similar.
Other highlights of the show include the work of such contemporary envelope-pushers as Ai Weiwei, Taryn Simon, Penelope Umbrico and Laia Abril. As clever and original as each of these artists’ approaches are individually, they become that much richer when taken in the context of the whole history of photography. And that is really what makes this exhibition such a delight. You are free to visit Taryn Simon’s Image Atlas at any time—but in concert with the rest of show, the implications of Simon’s work truly come to life.
This is a smart, original presentation of photography since its inception. If you have any chance of seeing it while it’s still showing, it’s not to be missed!
Editors’ Note: The exhibition “When We Share More Than Ever” will be shown at the Museum Für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg until September 20, 2015.
The exhibition also has an adjoining Tumblr, which will aim to supplement the gallery experience.