The current Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909–1949 is just one component of a four-year, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–funded research project examining photographs not only as art, but as physical objects possessing a material and sociological history as well. The 341-piece Walther Collection, acquired by MoMA in 2001, chronicles the development of photographic modernism in a primarily European context, including works by André Kertész, Alfred Stieglitz, and László Moholy-Nagy, among many others. The accompanying 400-page exhibition catalogue, Object:Photo, features 12 essays crafted from both an art historical perspective and from the standpoint of conservation and materiality. But that catalogue contains only a portion of the research, which is housed in full — along with 17 additional essays — on an extensive website.
The Object:Photo site is a marvel of interactive graphics and seems like a truly new way to understand a collection of art objects. The site’s design is clear and user-friendly, necessities for sorting through a massive amount of information that, even at first glance, is clearly meant as a research archive as much as an interactive tool for interested browsers. I gravitated towards a Connecting Artists section, which features a circle of dots, each representing an exhibition, photo industry hub, cultural hub, publication, or school. Select any dot and related artists appear as dots in the center of the circle; choose any artist and lines link back to affiliated categories. I started searching for artists that had studied at the Man Ray Studio and were associated with New York. Lee Miller, Man Ray, and Berenice Abbott fit the criteria. Clicking on a “Learn More” button, I discovered that Berenice Abbott was Man Ray’s assistant from 1923 to ’26, and that Lee Miller was his assistant and lover from 1929 to ’32. Man Ray is linked to a large number of exhibitions and publications, making him central to a sociological understanding of modern photography — much more so than, surprisingly, Henri Cartier-Bresson or Edward Steichen.
The website also offers detailed explanations of the methods used in material and surface analysis of the photos, as well as the ability to view each individual photo and its artist’s connections and chronology, as well as a comprehensive breakdown of the materials and techniques used in its creation. As someone with limited knowledge of photographic processes, it took frequent glossary referrals for me to understand the differences in materials and technique. It was well worth the effort to gain an appreciation of photography as process, and of a photographic print as a living, decaying object.