The first photograph that visitors see upon entering “The Itinerant Languages of Photography” exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum is literally the first-ever photograph — but with a modern twist. “Googlegram: Niepce” is composed of 10,000 photographs from Google Images that artist Joan Fontcuberta, using photo-mosaic software, assembled into “View from the Window at Le Gras,” which is the world’s oldest surviving photograph.
“It’s a really fabulous entry into the exhibition because it links together the earliest photograph with the most recent technologies,” English professor Eduardo Cadava said. “It also is a piece that was composed out of the itinerancy of images since these images that [Fontcuberta] is pulling are already uploaded onto the Internet; he’s pulling them off the Internet and putting them into his print.”
Cadava co-curated the exhibition with professor Gabriela Nouzeilles, chair of the Spanish and Portuguese languages and cultures department.
Though the exhibition opened at the University just this past September, it represents the culmination of a three-year effort by Cadava and Nouzeilles to examine the movement across time and space — of photographic archives, of the photographs themselves and of the photographers who take them — that is inherent in photography.
The project began in fall 2010 with the support of the Council for International Teaching and Research. Like the photographs themselves, the project crossed borders and brought scholars, artists, curators and students together. A series of conferences, workshops and presentations were held in Princeton, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Puebla, Mexico.
The exhibition, which marks the project’s close, comprises materials from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Spain. One of the goals, Nouzeilles said, was “to diversify what we see as a contained history of photography that is mostly focused on European — and not all the European archives either — and American photography.”
What many people do not realize, Cadava explained, is that photography developed concurrently in Europe and in Latin America. The project “was a way of interrupting the history of photography and expanding it and trying to suggest that the history of photography needs to be more transnational,” Cadava said.
The images were originally going to be organized around the four countries from which they hail, but, as Cadava explained, “We very quickly wanted to interrupt that, to suggest that photographs cannot be fixed or kept in a particular location.” The rooms of the exhibition are instead arranged around four themes: Itinerant Photographs, Itinerant Revolutions, Itinerant Subjects and Itinerant Archives.
Within each room, the images are further grouped together by motifs such as shadows, hat-topped heads, telephone poles and crossed arms. Their decisions regarding how the photographs are presented reflect Cadava’s and Nouzeilles’ desire for the viewer to experience for herself the itinerancy of the images. “We wanted to recreate that experience of itinerancy on the basis of visual echoes,” Cadava said. “What we wanted to do is have our viewer walk through the exhibition, and as he or she moved from one room to another, maybe they would arrive in the fourth section, and they would see a print or image that reminded them of something that was in the second room, and then all of a sudden what was in the second room had moved into the fourth room, at least in their head.”
Another goal, Nouzeilles said, was “to teach or to encourage people to learn to read photographs and images, in general, in a more complex way.” The exhibit encourages a fluid but in-depth understanding of the photos and what they represent.
“We live in an era where we’re totally surrounded by images, and it seems more important than ever to encourage a kind of literacy in relation to images,” added Cadava. “Everyone has some kind of camera in their hands, and because of that, it seemed important to encourage people to reflect on what they do every day.”
Accordingly, Cadava and Nouzeilles have facilitated student interaction with the exhibition through their graduate and undergraduate courses. The classes explored many of the same themes as the exhibition does. In addition, several other classes have also taken guided tours, and a critical response contest invited undergraduates to submit a short response to one of five photographs.
Cadava and Nouzeilles both had trouble highlighting one photograph as a favorite, but both agreed that Rosangela Renno’s “The Last Photo,” which closes the exhibition, is a standout. The photograph is part of the series that developed when Rennó gave analog cameras to 43 Brazilian photographers and told them they could take any one photograph with it, as long as it included the famous “Christ the Redeemer” statue in Rio de Janeiro. Once the photographer had taken his photograph, Renno painted the lens of the camera so that the image would literally be the last photograph that camera captured. “But even though it’s called ‘the last photo’ … since there are 43 last photos, there are really no last photos. So we began the exhibition by referencing the earliest photograph, and we close it by referencing the last photograph, which is never the last photograph,” Cadava said. “I think it’s a really great meditation on the relation between the analog and the digital.” The photograph from the series that is included in the exhibition shows an arm holding a digital camera taking a photograph of “Christ the Redeemer.”
The symposium accompanying “Itinerant Languages of Photography” took place from Nov. 21-23, but those who were unable to attend will have one more chance to hear a featured photographer speak when Graciela Iturbide, who has six photographs on display, gives a talk on campus on April 22. The exhibition itself is open through Jan. 19. If you haven’t already, you should stop by to take a look — it’s definitely worth it.