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The Shadow Archive, vernacular portrait photography at The Walther Collection, NYC

Portraits and Scenes, ca. 1912-1930, Caryl W Bulson, Schoharie County, New York. Image courtesy The Walther Collection

Kicking off an 18-month, five-show exploration of vernacular photography, The Shadow Archive focuses in on how vernacular portraits classify groups

The Walther Collection has kicked off an 18-month exploration of vernacular photography with a show titled The Shadow Archive: An Investigation into Vernacular Portrait Photography.

Taken from the 1850s to the present day, the collected portraits depict groups such as ‘migrant laborers’, ‘inmates of an asylum’, ‘criminal photographs’, and ‘G&G Precision Works Photographic Identity Badges’, and, says the organisers, show how “identification photographs have been used to sort, shape, segregate, and select subjects based on occupation, social group, body type, or political affiliation”.

The title references a phrase used by writer and photographer Allan Sekula to reference “the entire social field of human representations, comprising both heroes and deviants, within which every portrait takes its place as part of a moral hierarchy”. “The various, mostly unidentified individuals represented in these portraits, often in relation to their labour and employment, take up positions that are ratified or confirmed by their documentation in photography,” explain the exhibition organisers.

“Such serialised images lack meaning individually, and assume relevance only in relation to one another, and to the shadow archive.”

Portraits and Scenes, ca. 1912-1930, Caryl W Bulson, Schoharie County, New York. Image courtesy The Walther Collection

The Shadow Archive show includes well-known archives of vernacular portraiture such the Gulu Real Art Studio 2011-2012 collected by Martina Bacigalupo, and the Black Photo Album: Look At Me (1890-1950), 1997, put together by Santu Mofokeng. It has been organised by Brian Wallis, formerly chief curator and director of exhibitions at the International Center of Photography and now curator at the Walther Collection in Neu-Ulm/Burlafingen, Germany. Curatorial co-ordination came from Oluremi C. Onabanjo, and Felix Ho Yuen Chan and Paulina Choh provided support.

The Shadow Archive is the first in a series of five shows on vernacular photography at The Walther Collection over the next 18 months, which will run under the umbrella title Imagining Everyday Life: Aspects of Vernacular Photography. The series will include a symposium on vernacular photography held in New York Autumn 2018, and will culminate in a large exhibition at The Walther Collection in Neu-Ulm, Germany in May 2019, organised by Wallis and accompanied by a catalogue co-published with Steidl.

The Walther Collection is a private, non-profit organisation established by German-American art collector Artur Walther. Dedicated to researching, collecting, exhibition and publishing modern and contemporary photography and video art, it has two public exhibition spaces – the Walther Collection in Neu-Ulm, Germany, which opened in June 2010; and the Walther Collection Project Space, which opened in New York City in April 2011.

The first exhibition at The Walther Collection, Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity, was directed Okwui Enwezor and included work by African and German photographers such as Malick Sidibé, Yto Barrada, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and August Sander. Chris Dercon, former director of Tate Modern, chose the show at one of the 10 best exhibitions of 2010 for Artforum Magazine, and highlights from it were shown at Paris Photo in 2011.

Wallis’ first exhibition for The Walther Collection, The Order of Things: Photography from The Walther Collection, looked at how classifications such as typologies and time-based series have challenged conventions of photographic realism, and included photographs and installations by Richard Avedon, Stephen Shore, Thomas Ruff, and many more. A previous version of this exhibition was shown at Les Rencontres d’Arles in 2014.

The Shadow Archive: An Investigation into Vernacular Portrait Photography is on show at The Walther Collection Project Space, New York until 31 March, 2018. http://www.walthercollection.com

Portraits and Scenes, ca. 1912-1930, Caryl W Bulson, Schoharie County, New York. Image courtesy The Walther Collection

Portraits and Scenes, ca. 1912-1930, Caryl W Bulson, Schoharie County, New York. Image courtesy The Walther Collection

Portraits and Scenes, ca. 1912-1930, Caryl W Bulson, Schoharie County, New York. Image courtesy The Walther Collection

Portraits and Scenes, ca. 1912-1930, Caryl W Bulson, Schoharie County, New York. Image courtesy The Walther Collection

Portraits and Scenes, ca. 1912-1930, Caryl W Bulson, Schoharie County, New York. Image courtesy The Walther Collection

Portraits and Scenes, ca. 1912-1930, Caryl W Bulson, Schoharie County, New York. Image courtesy The Walther Collection

Portraits and Scenes, ca. 1912-1930, Caryl W Bulson, Schoharie County, New York. Image courtesy The Walther Collection

Portraits and Scenes, ca. 1912-1930, Caryl W Bulson, Schoharie County, New York. Image courtesy The Walther Collection

Portraits and Scenes, ca. 1912-1930, Caryl W Bulson, Schoharie County, New York. Image courtesy The Walther Collection

Portraits and Scenes, ca. 1912-1930, Caryl W Bulson, Schoharie County, New York. Image courtesy The Walther Collection

Portraits and Scenes, ca. 1912-1930, Caryl W Bulson, Schoharie County, New York. Image courtesy The Walther Collection