What provokes us to pursue something, to want to find out more? "Curiosity is an oddly ambivalent word," notes critic Brian Dillon in this issue. It can lead, he points out, to a range of conditions, from utter distraction to deep concentration, all stemming from the "urge to discover." Photography has long served as a medium of choice not only for the curious practitioner, but also for his or her audience, whose curiosity may be either aroused or appeased by an image.
Photographs, especially personal ones, have always served as physical manifestations of memory. Held between fingers or hung on a wall, photographic prints had a direct material connection to their subjects, from light to lens to film to paper.
Pleasures are like photographs: those taken in the beloved's presence no more than negatives, to be developed later, once you are at home, having regained the use of that interior darkroom, access to which is "condemned" as long as you are seeing other people.
Cape Town, a cosmopolitan port city at the southern meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, is home to photographers Zwelethu Mthethwa, Guy Tillim, and Pieter Hugo, among others. In the nineteenth century, Cape Town was also the home of German immigrant Carel Sparmann—the city's earliest known photographer—who in 1847 placed an advertisement in a local newspaper: "Daguerreotype Portraits," it read, "taken daily in the Garden."
I acquired this photograph for its sublime formal qualities and because it captures a moment of transgression in a heavily trafficked airspace. It’s a big piece—forty by forty-eight inches—and we keep it over the fireplace in our living room.
I first became aware of Francesca Woodman's work when I stumbled upon a publication from the 1986 exhibition at Wellesley College at Untitled Books in SoHo. I was deeply struck by the images in the catalog; I cannot recall having such a visceral reaction to photographs, or for that matter to any art, before that.
I normally think of photography as a tool, but David Goldblatt's work proves that it can also be art. This picture has hung in my office ever since I bought it from the Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris six years ago. I still find myself looking at it every day.
This vintage view is from the collection of postcards we assembled while gathering information for urban and architectural projects. Steve Izenour found it. He was our assistant at the time, a young architect who had worked with us on our study Learning from Las Vegas.
In the distance, a soaring elevated freeway intersection frames a widescreen view of the San Gabriel mountains. The dissonance is typical of Southern California: awesome nature matched by equally awesome urban development. Despite the seemingly endless sprawl, it is rare in the Los Angeles basin that one cannot see out of it to the wilderness beyond.
How close is distraction to discovery? From the mundane to the cosmic, Brian Dillon considers perspective, observation, and enlightenment found at the periphery. Curiosity is an oddly ambivalent word that historically has pointed almost as frequently to a condition of ruinous distraction as to a state of intense and productive concentration or to an urge to discover.
What is observation? What is objectivity? What counts as "right depiction"? Are images today now doing more than showing? What does the future of imaging hold? Peter Galison, one of the world's leading historians of science, has written widely on how visual representation shapes our understanding of the world.
Marvels and Spectacles: Photographic Exploration and the "First Glimpse"
In a time when the world and its phenomena have been photographed many times over, what can we learn by revisiting the early days of photography, when strange, dramatic, and novel images served as both evidence and entertainment? A century and half ago, James Glaisher, astronomer, meteorologist, and longtime president of the Royal Photographic Society, made a series of balloon ascents from London, recording measurements in the upper atmosphere.
What happens when the Earth begins to look extraterrestrial, when we look at a photograph and can't determine what we're looking at? Between 1943 and 1945 Frederick Sommer made several photographs of the Sonoran Desert near his home in Arizona.
How is color perceived? How is it replicated with photography? What happens when science and art come together in a photographic image? For photographers from William Henry Fox Talbot, Berenice Abbott, and Hiroshi Sugimoto to a little-known research scientist creating color film for Kodak in the 1930s, the mysterious properties of color as rendered through photography continue to transfix, perplex, and dazzle.
In 2012 the prolific and inventive British photographer Stephen Gill was commissioned to make a photographic response to the postindustrial town of Dudelange, Luxembourg, once a center of European steel manufacturing. For this project he focused on a heavily polluted pond that had been used to cool the steel mill's furnaces, drawing visual parallels between the microscopic life in the water and the human life in the nearby town.
Secret Universe is the title of the exhibition series under which, in 2011, the late Horst Ademeit's work was first presented to a museum audience. It was a fitting choice for an exceptional corpus of Polaroid (and later digital) photography that was neither conceived as an artistic project nor intended for public exposure.
Harold E. Edgerton "Doc" and His Laboratory Notebooks
"Let a cannon-bullet pass through a room, and in its way take with it any limb or fleshy part of man." This dramatic scenario was envisaged by the great Enlightenment thinker John Locke in 1689. The bullet, he reasoned, "must touch one part of the flesh first, and another after, and so in succession."
Mårten Lange has made a career of disorienting spectators with off-kilter points of view and high-contrast photographs in which ordinary objects and scenes are transformed into riddles of perception. His book Another Language (MACK, 2012) presents tightly composed images of the natural world transmuted into uncanny scenes.
For more than thirty years, German photographer Thomas Ruff has investigated the grammar and structures of photography, through his many celebrated series, Sterne/Stars (1989), maschinen/machines (2003), and cassini (2008)—to name just a few.
In the 1890s, with the rise of Kodak products and the standardization of halftone reproduction in print, photographs became the wallpaper of daily life. Anyone and everyone, now, could create pictures full of detail, and the reading public's mental picture of current events was, increasingly, a camera-derived image.
In the early 1970s Robert Cumming spent a lot of time in movie memorabilia shops in Hollywood. These shops—filled with flotsam and jetsam from the classic era of Hollywood cinema—were a curious brand of cultural repository for the young artist from Massachusetts, schooled in the Midwest.
It is not surprising that Swiss photographer Eva-Fiore Kovacovsky cites Anna Atkins's nineteenth-century cyanotypes, Karl Blossfeldt's 1930s studies of plants, and Max Ernst's Histoire naturelle (Natural history, 1926) as points of inspiration.
For nearly a decade, Lisa Oppenheim has teased apart the individual steps of picture-making, wringing from the medium’s technical apparatus a surprisingly broad range of meanings. She is informed by the legacy of Conceptual art, but her most recent series, sampled in the following pages, reach back further in time for their inspiration.
Hasselblad Electric Data Cameras accompanied all U.S. voyages to the moon and produced many early pictures from outer space, including the iconic 1968 photograph known as Earthrise, shot from inside the Apollo 8 spacecraft. Three Data Cameras were aboard the 1969 Apollo 11 mission; Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin wore suits customized with anterior attachments to hold the cameras, which feature prominently in pictures of the space travelers: a sleek third eye fastened to their bulky spacesuits.