I walked through this exhibition open-mouthed, with my jaw hanging halfway down my chest. Every kind of photo manipulation being done in Photoshop today was already done in the 1840s within 20 years of the first photograph being taken! But, what was especially astounding was how these tricks were achieved and why they were done.
The how part consists of many different demanding processes having to do with clunky equipment, lots of chemicals, sunlight, and ingenuity.
The why part has to do with elevating photography to an art form, manipulating truth for political gains, bringing color to black and white, adding and subtracting people, and more happily for humor and gags. Any which way you see it, photography was the art of whipping up fictional hysteria, sometimes with the intention of making us believe they were real. Of course, there were also naturalists trying to document reality as truthfully as possible, but this wasn’t their exhibition, and even they inadvertently succumbed to the fictional aspect of photography, both due to the limitations of the technology at that time, and their own prejudices on how the medium should be used.
I would encourage you to visit the exhibition if it ever comes to your part of the world, and read the book, which is a lot sooner and surer to arrive at your doorstep than the exhibition!
The picture above is called "Two ways of Life", and was rendered in 1857 by Oscar Gustav Rejlander. "Rejlander photographed each model and background section separately, yielding more than thirty negatives, which he meticulously combined into a single large print." The Met Museum website showcases all the works in the exhibition, which is over 200 photographs.
NPR has a wonderful article about the exhibition with slideshows. Don't miss the slideshow in the bottom with Joseph Stalin and his mysteriously disappearing inner circle.
Here’s Getty Museum's video of how daguerreotypes were made, just for context on how difficult it was to take photographs at one point. The exhibition showed manipulated daguerreotypes, such as images within images, and other special effects.
And for contrast, here’s Getty Museum's video about a naturalist called PH Emerson, who wanted photography to capture the English countryside as realistically as possible.
As I was half way through watching Ai Weiwei's documentary, Tapi, who had just watched it the night before casually stated that it was the last day of Ai Weiwei's exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum; not expecting that he would have to vault out the door with me that very instant to go see it! I then came back and watched the second half of the documentary, which ended on a disheartening note, and some more videos about his art installations.
With Ai Weiwei's work, one can't separate his art from the polity or his life experiences. He's determined to make bold statements about the lack of transparency in the Chinese government using the most visible tools of outreach: Art Installations and Social Activism through blogs, Twitter, documentaries, videos and photographs. Even alone, each of these are audacious tools in a highly censored country, and he combines them so that they feed off of each other. This, while being under constant government surveillance, having his blogs shutdown, getting arrested multiple times (including a "disappearance"), and seeing his studio destroyed!
After the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Ai Weiwei made a documentary to show how the government had covered up the deaths of over 5385 children who were buried alive when shoddily constructed public schools collapsed during the earthquake. He then rallied support on twitter for a "citizens' investigation" to compile a list of all the students who were killed. When the blog where he shared the list was shut down by the authorities, he turned it into art, and pasted the names of the student victims on the wall as a massive spreadsheet! One art installation at the exhibition was made out of steel rebar that Weiwei found in junkyards after the government tried to dispose of evidence!
When one looks at the art pieces, it is hard to see the commitment of hundreds of volunteers and the toil that went into pounding thousands of steel rebar to shape, or painting hundred million sunflower seeds, or sculpting thousands of porcelain river crabs, without seeing the accompanying videos showing them willingly laboring away; and then the abstractness transforms into a real, heavy feeling. Weiwei's art is equally about all these people coming together to say something in this ideational way, as it is about the message in the art itself! That regular people are even voicing their opinion is out of the ordinary.
The exhibits make sense only when you read the context, or watch the accompanying videos and see what informed them, and what happened before, during, and after the making of these pieces. It is about cause and effect, and wanting to change the effect into something more positive! Weiwei sees his art as a game of chess, where he makes his move and waits for the opponent to counter. Although, he says in China, the problem is that after every move, the government changes the rules of play, making it impossible to win.
Weiwei's passport was revoked by the Chinese government, so he couldn't attend his own exhibition in DC, but his spirit is indomitable and reverberates across the globe! His photos and videos cover every inch of the walls and floors in Hirshhorn, as I would imagine they do in several other museums all over the world!
When you see thousands of people watching his artwork in a different countries, or thousands of people posting nude photos of themselves online when he is charged for pornography, or thousands honoring the Sichuan earthquake victims in Munich, Germany, or thousands coming together for a River-Crab Party after the demolition of his studio in Shanghai, you see one man's single-mindedness transforming into many people's like-mindedness.