Part of the mission statement of the International Center of Photography is to propagate society’s appreciation of photography and the role it plays in our modern lives. Visiting the ICP for the first time, that message comes across loud and clear. There is so much power in the intricate wealth of information held in a photograph. It really comes alive as you walk through the exhibits displayed across their walls. An image that upon first glance appears to just depict a plain person sitting in an ordinary room yields incredible insights about the human condition when you are presented at the finer details available when the image is blown up to larger-than-life proportions. Details in the wrinkles of a face, the expression captured in the moment the photograph was snapped, the way seemingly bland items are arranged in the background–it all tells a story. Specifically in the Perspectives 2012 exhibit currently on display, I was reminded of the fact that we as a culture don’t often just stare at pictures of people whose names and identities we don’t know. There’s so much information all around us.
The Perspectives series is designed to broaden the scope of our experience of photography to more a global view, and this current installment of the series does just that. The photographs on display in the exhibit show the coming together of many different cultural images. We see a middle-aged Taiwanese man eating with chopsticks in his underwear on a New York City fire escape next to a busy street, while in the next frame over, Taiwanese children play with multimedia toys on a big couch in the middle of a Philadelphia home. We see a picture of a United States Postal Service mailbox on a street corner in a US Navy housing area in Japan. We see American soldiers in camouflage sitting on a couch in the middle of what appears to be a KMart on an air base in Korea. There are a ton of juxtapositions of images that hold cultural significance thrust into the context of a different culture that isn’t intuitively thought of as consistent.
The exhibit is full of ideas like that, but due to the nature of photography, my attention was drawn to the fact that not only are they ideas, but these things really happened. Photography involves pictures of things happening in real life, not just in someone’s imagination. It would be a different story if someone had thought to themselves “Hey! It would be a cool idea to create an image of American soldiers lounging in uniform in the middle of a KMart in Korea.” That element of creative thought is definitely still present in the planning of photographs like this, but the difference here is fundamental to the definition of the medium of photography. In order for a photograph to be taken, the contents of the photograph have to actually be within the same physical space. It can’t just be an idea from someone’s head. These soldiers were actually in that KMart-esque store, sitting on a couch. Something about the medium of photography grounds these images in reality, rather than just a concept that can be painted or drawn in a cartoon. Therein lies the significance of photography itself as a form, which is what the International Center of Photography is there to promote in the first place. These aren’t just global concepts. They’re evidence of global realities.
Columbia University Arts Initiative