A Museum Without Walls…for an Art Without Boundaries

Sometimes, if there ain’t a museum for what you want, you just have to set it up yourself…which is precisely what Bill Becker, a television producer and writer and noted historian of photography (his research has been published in American Heritage, History of Photography: An International Quarterly and other forums) did. Also; if you don’t necessarily have the resources of thousands of square feet of wall space, attendants’ wages, the need for a board to be fed canapés and wine whilst arguing over acquisitions and purchases… then maybe it’s time to set up a virtual museum, open 365 days a year, 24/7.

Unidentified photographer, Girl with Columbia Graphophone, platinum(?) print(app.4.25X5.5
Unidentified photographer, Girl with Columbia Graphophone, platinum(?) print (approx. 4.25×5.5in,)

Maybe the American Museum of Photography is the most apropos museum of this time: because it fully embraces the digital instantaneous nature of the medium, but tempers it with a deep respect for the necessity of recognizing history, and the inherent need for preservation and dissemination.

This isn’t just another online library. Becker has spent an enormous amount of time – dating back to 1968, as a teenager – searching for images. How does he know what he wants? Becker quotes a Supreme Court Judge talking about pornography (not that Becker’s looking for that. Or maybe he is? He didn’t tell in this interview…) : “I know it when I see it.” A more kiddy-friendly metaphor that he also uses: when he sees a photograph that he wants, it’s like “Sylvester seeing Tweety-Pie. His eyes bug out…”

Three Men with Fish & Lobster Unidentified Photographer.  Tintype,  Carte de Visite format (approx. 2.25 x 4 inches)  Daguerre’s American Legacy, p. 215; included in MIT Museum exhibition: Also available as a postcard from the MIT Museum bookstore.
Three Men with Fish & Lobster, Unidentified Photographer. Tintype, Carte de Visite format (approx. 2.25 x 4 in.) Daguerre’s American Legacy, p.215; included in MIT Museum exhibition. Also available as a postcard from the MIT Museum bookstore.

So Becker searches, and ruminates, and searches some more. But, between IP issues, and a digital pop culture world where every meal is photographed on Instagram, Becker is curating an astounding body of compelling images that occupies an area of interest somewhere between the archival, and the still-immediate effect of a decades-old image on the retina.

Images have been loaned for exhibitions including: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, Maison Europeenne de la Photographie (Paris), and the Museum Folkwang.

What makes Becker’s virtual museum distinctive is the quality of the images. From over five thousand photographs, Becker’s selection for individually-curated shows (from the overall resource) range, according to him: “From the earliest daguerreotype portraits, through to the work of Ansel Adams. Each photograph has been chosen for its visual impact as well as for the importance of its content.”

Native American with Blonde Baby, albumen print on cabinet card mount(4.25x6.5in.), after 1885   Daguerre’s American Legacy, p. 168; included in MIT Museum exhibition: Also available as a postcard from the MIT Museum bookstore.
Native American with Blonde Baby, albumen print on cabinet card mount (4.25×6.5in.), after 1885. Daguerre’s American Legacy, p.168; included in MIT Museum exhibition. Also available as a postcard from the MIT Museum bookstore.

It’s an impressive range of images, and all of them are open to scholarly interpretation, based both on historical perspective, but also how these records of past eras resonate in contemporary times. Curations have been organized on subjects including: how photography has bridged East and West cultural gaps (a daguerreotypist accompanied Commodore Mathew Perry on his first mission to Japan); 19th century “slave” photographs by a variety of unidentified photographers; through to more playful exhibitions such as “Do You Believe?” a collection of spirit photographs, begun back when people were first seeing the results of double-exposures.

From the surreal to the kitsch, via the “important” and the incisive, there’s a democratic impulse of wonder – like a collector suddenly finding a treasure trove at a market stall; or the wonder of finding some cool images when one surfs the website – in the breadth of the collections; a playfulness that both has fun with the wonderful idiosyncrasy of the archive, but also honors the invaluable nature of these snapshots. When asked if his own model is a subversion of the museum model, Becker is adamant that it isn’t; rather “It’s not oppositional to institutions, that do amazing work, and are vital. I see this more as supplemental… and fun.”

R.M.Linn&Brother, Civil War Soldiers Returning Home, Sightseeing at Point Lookout, Tennessee, tintype(3.25X4.25in.) June, 1885
R.M. Linn & Brother, Civil War Soldiers Returning Home, Sightseeing at Point Lookout, Tennessee. Tintype (3.25×4.25in.) June, 1885

Becker has, currently, supplied images to the new exhibition: “Daguerre’s American Legacy:  Photographic Portraits (1840 -1900)” at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts which contains more than 170 American portrait photographs, including 100 daguerreotypes.  The exhibit in the Kurtz Gallery for Photography is based on the first-ever public display of photographs in the home of Louis J. M. Daguerre, in the City of Bry-sur-Marne near Paris.

Visit the American Museum of Photography here: http://www.photographymuseum.com

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