The past week involved another Atlantic crossing for me and as such, a proper post won’t appear until later this week, but I wanted to comment briefly on a fantastic session organized by Lisa Le Feuvre and Jon Wood of the Henry Moore Institute for this year’s Association of Art Associations Annual Conference – held 11-13 April in Reading. The session was titled, “Photography and the Histories of Sculpture: What role has photography played in forming sculpture’s place in art history?” This is a topic that plays a large role in my own research and it was wonderful to see (and hear) it explored at an event like AAH; not only in the HMI panel but also in other sessions, including one organized by Alice Correia and Robert Sutton from Tate on Henry Moore (and do check out their larger, excellent research project at Tate).
The HMI session brought together international scholars speaking on a very diverse range of subjects within the broader category of sculpture and photography’s intermedial intersections. Patrizia Di Bello (Birkbeck College, University of London) used the widely reproduced images by Edward Steichen of Rodin and his sculptures, especially as they appeared in the pages of Alfred Stieglitz’s seminal journal Camera Work, to examine the materiality, the various techniques and textures, of photographs as and of objects. Jeremy Melius (Johns Hopkins University) looked at the bizarre, if not outright uncanny and creepy, images of wax portraits illustrating the text of Julian von Scholsser’s “History of Portraiture in Wax (1911),” using them to examine the tension between the photograph’s illustrative capacity, narrative function, and rhetorical role. His paper explored the idea of deterioration present in the wax works themselves and the passage of time visible in both real and wax bodies and frozen in photographic images. Megan Luke (University of Southern California) gave the broadest overview of the historiography of the topic, looking at key theoretical texts from Heinrich Wölfflin, Erwin Panofsky, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Referencing a larger book project she is working on with Sarah Hamill (Oberlin College), Luke aptly discussed how issues like autonomy, medium specificity, sites of display, tactility, and lighting are crucial not only to the discussion of the relationship between sculpture and photography, but also to the exchange between artist, photographer, and institutional context implicit in that relationship.
Sylwia Serafinowicz (Courtauld Institute of Art) looked at the role of photography as it related to ephemeral, Conceptual Art practices in the Polish avant-garde c. 1970, and the issue of artistic and photographic authorship in such works. Jyrki Siukonen (Finnish Academy of Fine Arts) spoke on the corner reliefs of Vladimir Tatlin and their subsequent photographic documentation and reconstructions, and Anne McCauley (Princeton University) discussed the photographs of Marcel Duchamp‘s objects by Man Ray. Like Luke, McCauley also focused on the role of lighting and shadows in the photographing of three-dimensional objects and how photography shaped the interpretation of modern art. Thomas Morgan Evans (University College London) compared Andy Warhol’s evocations of presence and absence in works like his crumpled paper pieces with Wolfgang Tillman’s Lighter Series, asserting a definition of sculpture as that which is “cast-off” and, specifically in the contemporary sphere, “fallout from our digital lives.” Sara Knelman (Courtauld Institute of Art) closed the session, examining how this topic has played out in the context of the museum and exhibition strategies. She used Steichen’s 1954 exhibition Family of Man and Peter C. Bunnell’s 1970 Photography into Sculpture, both at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to explore dimensional translations and how photographs were transformed into sculptural entities.
Overall the session suggested that there are a multiplicity of art historical narratives at play, and that the relationship between sculpture and photography – how the two mediums inform, shape, and as Di Bello stated “buttress” each other – is a rich area of research that not only demands further exploration but also has profound implications for the whole field of art history and, for that matter, any discipline that uses photographic images. It was clear that there still exists methodological divisions between those approaching the subject from one medium or the other, and that both photography’s “objecthood” and sculpture’s complication of photography’s ability (or lack thereof) to fully convey its three-dimensionality need to be more fully considered.