Overexposure: Thoughts on the Triumph of Photography


McCauley, Anne. ‘Overexposure: Thoughts on the Triumph of Photography’, The Meaning of Photography ed. by Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson (Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, 2005) 159-162


[discusses photography’s acceptance into art institutions]


Museums became infotainment for people who wanted to walk rather than sit in front of screens when escaping from their jobs, to have the illusion of free will when they chose what to look at and when to leave.

If the desire for exoticism – finely wrought goods from temporally and geographically distant places – lured visitors into these emporia of culture, then how did the photographs sit in that space.

I would like to be able to say that art museums embraced photographs because artists coming out of Pop art reintroduced recognizable, commercial signs and photo-based images into “high art,” and conceptual and performance artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s snuck them in through the back door as documentation. This is the line that I have fed my students for years, and there is some truth in it, but it is a story of interest only to fellow fine artists and the one percent of urbanites who make up the “Art World”.

In fact, the public had always loved photography: witness the  Family of Man and the enormous circulation of picture magazines in the 1920s to the 1950s. The people who didn’t like photography were elites, cultural or social […]

Art changed, museums changed, and elites changed. First in America, and finally, even in that bastion of culture, France, museums have turned over increasing amounts of space to photography.

Certainly part of this transformation can be written off on purely economic grounds […] but the overriding truth is that photographs are now enticing visitors across the socioeconomic scale with their tidy mixture of comfortable familiarity, historic insight, and just enough formal distortion to make them look different from recollected vision.


As an object, the photograph tells its story in a flash at a safe distance, which is the way we now want our messages.

But at the same time, the photographic object still carries its indexical link to another time, its historicity.

While we marvel over the fact that Leonardo’s hand actually held the brush that dragged across the wood panel or that Rembrandt’s wife actually lay in front of him as we made that pen drawing, we cherish the traditional art because of what it arouses in the present, not because it freezes the past.

In contrast, photographs shown in public spaces still bear traces of the same power that draws us to family albums: They remain fetishes that mystically and magically embody lost bodies.

As one of the few visual media still having an extra-artistic life, photography can be painted as popular (in family albums, newspapers, advertising, Facebook) and artistic, thus fodder for historians, anthropologists, journalists, sociologists, and humanists, as well as art historians who want to escape the damning charge of “elitism” that currently plagues the field.


The success of photography within humanistic studies and its simultaneous omnipresence within art schools and museums hinge on the same paradoxical assumption: that one forgets about the technologies needed to actually make a picture but remembers that the photograph is indexical and thus always documentary.

Something has been gained: Many scholars are looking closely at photographs and thinking about how they shape our view of the world. But something has been lost: Too many take them as given, as mental constructs removed from labor.

Digital photography, making the darkroom obsolete and shifting the creativity to the keyboard, encourages this type of thinking, as does the practice of outsourcing the actual printing to commercial firms that is now customary for all large, mural-scale fine arts photographs.

Most photographic production historically always entailed division-of-labor techniques, but those photographs remained commodities with no pretences to rarity or artistic value.

At the risk of sounding like a follower of a Debord or Sontag, I am a little uneasy with the current fascination with photography, whether the large, glossy, laminated prints stunning visitors at art museums or the family snapshots being published by cultural historians.

We are now hoarding machine-made goods in the absence of almost any handmade objects; we are artificially constructing uniqueness out of mass sensibilities (wanting our family to be different from all  families); we are desperate for connections with people whom we know only through the mediations of electronics and technologies of vision.

Have we become so happy with the copy that we can no longer imagine the real thing?

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