I have seen rather a few exhibitions this summer and not just photography but sculpture, video, performance, writing, sound and painting; I just could not get enough. What I found interesting though with all these shows, is just how controlling photographic narrative can be through certain forms of production and presentation. Photography is very flexible in how it can be displayed, from prints on a wall, images in a book or projected as a slide show; it is quite a shape-shifting medium.
I’m not necessarily referring to how work is curated at an exhibition, although this does play a big part on how some narratives are read. No, I’m expressing how photography is not limited to one mode of presentation, but many. With most other mediums they have only one manifestation, even if they are photographed that image is merely an illustration of the original artefact. An image is photography’s final manifestation; only it can be adapted to take a few different forms and still be considered the final piece.
There is almost a prescribed method of presentation of how, as a viewer you look at different works of art. For example, with sculpture you are normally invited to admire its stature and presence within its space, observe how light falls on it and perhaps note the medium in which it was constructed in, whilst remembering ‘Do Not Touch’. With paintings you typically view the work hung on a wall, maybe at a set distance denoted by a line or rope and ponder the possible narratives contained.
Now with a photography exhibition, the images are generally presented to the viewer as prints on a wall. From flush mounting to framing they are there to view at the spectators discretion, but if they are part of a series with a narrative throughout, where do you begin? You may be presented with an introductory text panel, which could indicate the start, yet what really governs this. What is to stop you walking straight to an image in the centre of a wall as it catches your eye, thus negating the possible intended visual narrative? With images on a wall the viewer has the power, they decide if they want to give an image a fleeting glance or immerse themselves in the photographers’ tableaux.
Another form of display is a photography book exhibition. Now the power starts to shift through the construct of a book and how it can be assimilated; so for westerners, a books form is second nature; it is read from left to right, top to bottom. Images on a page have an almost perceived linear interpretation to their order. Yes, you could, if you wish just open a photography book up in the middle and ‘thumb’ your way back. Yet still, a book offers the photographer a very structured device for controlling their narrative. Then perhaps with careful designing and a well-placed triptych or diptych, sub narratives could be formed, all adding to a very formulaic way of presenting work.
The last form that interests me with its power over the viewer is that of the slide show. I’m referring to either analogue or digital slide show projections, however there is something mesmerising about the whirring and the click-clunk noise of a dozen Kodak carousels dancing in unison. With slide shows, the duration between each frame can be timed precisely, coupled with the possibility of a supporting audio piece makes for a narrative that is highly controlled. Through this format the viewer can either view the work or not; they can not take a quick glimpse of one image, nor fall into another, that choice has already been made for them.
So when putting together photographs for an exhibition think about the presentation and how the viewer could read in to it, question how much control you want over the display of your images. But be careful, photography can be presented and transmitted many ways and sometimes the work is lost through its medium, so choose wisely and experiment as much as you can.
For a photography book exhibition see:
Here is Nan Goldin’s ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ with The Tiger Lillies providing the audio: