Photo Revolution explores the untidy history of photography as an artform

The exhibition is currently on view at the Worcester Art Museum.

Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still #7
Untitled Film Still #7, 1978, Gelatin silver print, 10 x 8 inches, 25.4 x 20.3 cmCindy Sherman, Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Prior to the 1960s, it was unlikely that one would find the work of photographers inside the walls of museums. Photography, in many ways, was seen as a documentary tool and not as something that should be collected and preserved. But all of the sudden major museums around the country began adding the medium to their collection.

“I always wondered why that was the moment that this seemed to collectively happen,” explains Nancy Kathryn Burns, the Stoddard Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Worcester Art Museum and the curator behind the Museum’s current show Photography Revolution. “I have had this in the back of my mind for years, like a tumbleweed bouncing around.”

Tom Wesselmann, Great American Nude #36
Tom Wesselmann, Great American Nude #36, 1962, enamel and polymer paint and collage on composition board, Museum Purchase, 1965.393.© 2019 Estate of Tom Wesselmann / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Robert Heinecken, Untitled [Are You Rea]
Robert Heinecken, Untitled [Are You Rea], 1964–1968, offset lithograph on white wove paper, National Endowment for the Arts Museum Purchase Plan, 1975.12.© The Robert Heinecken Trust. Courtesy Petzel, New York.

Photo Revolution: Andy Warhol to Cindy Sherman explores the symbiotic relationship between photography and fine art and the ways in which photography was finally able to establish itself as a serious medium in the museum world.

“Photography really undergirds a lot of the art work that we associate with artists who are working in other media,” says Burns. “If that is what is happening, maybe that is how photography inched its way into the museums on its own terms.”

Andy Warhol, The Art Worker’s Coalition, Martha Rosler, Richard Hamilton and others are all deeply indebted to photography or videography. Many of these artists were also looking at what it meant to be an American. According to Burns, artists like Robert Frank and William Eggleston have a lot more in common with fine artists of the period than previously acknowledged.

Andy Warhol, Mao Tse-Tung
Andy Warhol, Mao Tse-Tung, 1972, color screenprint, National Endowment for the Arts Museum Purchase Plan, 1977.91.© 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Rowland Scherman, Andy Warhol aside Polaroids of Caroline Ireland
Rowland Scherman, Andy Warhol aside Polaroids of Caroline Ireland, about 1979; printed 2008, digital inkjet print, Gift of Howard G. Davis, III A.K.A. David Davis, 2011.162.© Rowland Scherman

The period also coincides with the rise of television, and the explosion of television news—which had a direct impact on the art of the time.

“We talk about Vietnam as the living room war, news was coming through your television and traditional news sources. People were really being inundated in a way that you hadn’t seen before,” Burns says. “The immediacy shifted considerably.”

Artists like Richard Hamilton used a camera to photograph the news of the Kent State shooting from his television—making literal screen shots—and then turning them into screen prints. According to Burns the photo and video documentation of these events shifted the public’s relationship with photography significantly.

John O’Reilly, Self-Portrait
John O’Reilly, Self-Portrait, 1965, collage of found prints and gelatin silver prints on board with casein, Chapin Riley Fund, 2015.70.© John O'Reilly, used with permission
Alex Katz, Double Portrait with Frames
Alex Katz, Double Portrait with Frames, 1960, oil on Masonite, Colby College Museum of Art, Gift of the artist, 1995.061.© 2019 Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

During this same era consumer cameras like the Kodak Instamatic made it cheap and easy for everyday people to document the world around them. The exhibition includes a sizable collection of vernacular photography from the era.

“Everyday people were taking very similar photographs and choosing very similar subject matter as the people that we think of as great photographers,” says Burns.

Although the title of the show implies that visitors might move through a timeline, Burns says that it was important for her to avoid a perfectly linear narrative.

Harry Gordon, Eye from Poster Dresses
Harry Gordon, Eye from Poster Dresses, 1968, paper (wood pulp and rayon mesh; patented as Kyron), screenprinted, Collection of Catherine M. Colinveaux.© Courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields
Andy Warhol, Outer and Inner Space
Andy Warhol, Outer and Inner Space, 1965, 16mm film transferred to digital files; Black and white, sound, 33 minutes in double screen, Collection of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, with contribution from the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, Inc.© 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“It is too untidy of a moment to do that. It also wasn’t how the movement worked. I wanted to retain that,” she explains. “So many ideas were coexisting at the same time, I didn’t want it to be a perfect package.”

Photo Revolution: Andy Warhol to Cindy Sherman is on view at the Worcester Art Museum through February 16.

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