POUGHKEEPSIE, NY.- While the Facebook social networking website has proven to be enormously popular, linking millions of photographs of faces to searchable biographical data, the notion of collecting and cataloguing pictures of people is not a new one. In the 1920s August Sander created a typological catalogue of more than six hundred photographs of German people from all walks of life, in his monumental lifelong project to document the residents of his native Westerwald, near Cologne.
Through fifty photographs from the nearly 3,000 in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center collection, the new exhibition Facebook: Images of People in Photographs from the Permanent Collection examines the development of the photographic portrait from the nineteenth century through today. Facebook will be presented June 27-August 10 in the museum's Prints and Drawings Galleries, and will only be seen there.
The exhibition features many of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century: from very early formal portraits to the iconic photographs taken in the early 1900s by August Sander and Walker Evans (the famed chronicler of rural and laboring Americans); from the unique personalities captured by visionary artist Diane Arbus in the 1960s, to the theatrical fictions created by Cindy Sherman in the 1980s; as well as the deadpan views of ordinary New Yorkers shot by Rineke Dijkstra in the 1990s.
"This exhibition not only reflects photography's diversity, but also reveals the many changes in both style and technique that the medium has undergone," explains Mary-Kay Lombino, the Art Center's Emily Hargroves Fisher '57 and Richard B. Fisher curator.
In addition, Facebook presents photographs by several lesser-known artists. For example, Jerry L. Thompson's own brand of street photography comprises nighttime portraits of lively individuals at the Coney Island amusement park in Brooklyn during the summers of 1972 and 1973, as well as his portraits taken on New York City streets (the latter works part of his nearly 20-year project that began in the early 1980s). The exhibition also includes works from the Art Center's new acquisition of Polaroids by Andy Warhol, which depict the famous faces of John Denver, Liza Minnelli, and others.
Althea Thauberger's work often features solo and group portraits of young adults in subtly performative poses, engaging with the environment. The individual personality of her subject comes across strongly in her large-scale color photograph Dani, made in 2005 (and one of the most recent works in the exhibition). Berenice Abbott, Walead Beshty, Richard Avedon, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Lee Freidlander, Nan Goldin, Mark Goodman, Lewis W. Hine, Sherrie Levine, Helen Levitt, Sally Mann, Lee Miller, Thomas Ruff, Laurie Simmons, Paul Strand, Larry Sultan, Weegee, and Garry Winogrand are among the other artists whose photographs are seen in Facebook.
The photographic portrait once defined by aristocratic formality or anthropological and utilitarian documentation is now more often characterized by do-it-yourself experimentation, the result of the medium continually responding to new technologies and materials. But the shift in how we now use and understand photographs is perhaps even more revealing.
Prior to the information age, photographs were helpful tools for research, record keeping, and documentation. As photography has increasingly shifted to digital imaging, the medium has been marked by a growing percentage of the population owning a camera (or at least having one on their phone), and taking pictures on a regular basis. Today, with the proliferation of photographic material and its endless availability, we find ourselves inundated with pictures.
"One wonders whether a website such as Facebook actually helps us sort through visual material or if it has made our relationship with images more complex by virtue of its shear enormity," said Lombino.