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The public acceptance of photographs as visual evidence made documentary photography possible. But that acceptance varied over time depending on the case that could be made for photographic objectivity, the mode of a photograph’s dissemination, and the desire for social change motivating many documentary projects. In addition, photographers throughout the twentieth century employed canny interventions to alternately exploit and dismantle the assumption of photography’s transparency, and play with our wish to see pictures inspire social change. This exhibition re-examines the genre of social documentary photography by focusing on the shifting criteria embedded within the public image, and the responses of imagemakers to these transformations.
Drawn from the Zimmerli Art Museum’s collection, with additional loans from public and private collections, the exhibition focuses on American, European, and Soviet and post-Soviet Russian photographers who use the camera to educate, persuade, and to effect social change. Among the photographers included in the exhibition are Berenice Abbott, Max Alpert, William Castellana, Walker Evans, Larry Fink, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Lewis Hine, Boris Ignatovich, Dorothea Lange, Igor Moukhin, Gordon Parks, Alexander Rodchenko, Arthur Rothstein, Sebastião Salgado, Arkady Shaikhet, Aaron Siskind, W. Eugene Smith, and Weegee. Because social documentary photography requires distribution through social channels, the exhibition also includes the published reports, journals, magazines, books, Instagram posts, and other documents that brought these images to the public eye.
This exhibition is organized by Donna Gustafson, Curator of American Art and Mellon Director for Academic Programs, and Andrés Mario Zervigón, Associate Professor, History of Photography, Department of Art History, Rutgers University.
The Public Image: Social Documentary Photography from the Collection of the Zimmerli Art Museum is the Zimmerli’s second publication available in ebook format only. It is a key component of an ambitious new collaboration between the Zimmerli Art Museum and the Department of Art History at Rutgers University, made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Capitalizing on the strengths of the Zimmerli and the Department of Art History, this initiative is centered on the firsthand study of works of art in the museum’s collection.