Moderna Museet | Stockholm

Photography is a perfect illustration of Friedrich Nietzsche’s contention that every concept originates by equating the unequal. Strictly speaking, only a techno-chemical process unites everything we refer to as “photographs.” The “promiscuity” of photography—its malleability and tremendously varied applications—tends, however, to be obliterated as soon as we approach the gallery or the museum. In most photo exhibitions the diversity, complexity, and social dimensions of photography are tempered in favor of a formal, esthetic, and apolitical approach. This medium of mass communication par excellence is elevated to art and subjected to a hierarchic system, reducing it to an exclusive, symbolic object.

Post-Modern strategies and uses of photography have to some extent successfully undermined the formal and esthetic reductionism of art photography. Instead of focusing on the medium, this deconstructive, camera-based art has examined the social, political, and institutional aspects of representation. But, qua art, even the best postphotographic works run the risk of being co-opted and defused by the traditional institution of art.

In this exhibition, curator Irène Berggren makes an original attempt to show photography in a way that obstructs both esthetization and fetishization. To achieve this, Berggren employed a threefold strategy: maximal inclusiveness (practically every photographic genre is represented), horizontality of presentation (no sign of any hierarchies), and no focus on an individual work/author (most pictures in the show could be substituted for others without changing the overall impression). By treating all kinds of photography equally, Berggren deconstructs oppositions and genres, transgresses time-honored borders, and questions value hierarchies, both in the world of art and, indirectly, in society at large. She emphasizes photography’s socially and ideologically formed and formative power. From this perspective there might not be much difference between a news photo, an ad, or a documentary picture. Berggren has grouped the material—some 200 photos by 104 Swedish photographers—on the basis of value, identity, desire, and transformation. The question is thus posed: how does photography shape, sustain, and confirm our values, desires, and identities? What is the role of photography as a major social and cultural phenomenon in terms of race, sex, gender, and class? What realities does it produce?

“Equals” flatters neither its participants nor its audience. Instead of gratifying conventional expectations, it demonstrates that it is still possible, even in an art museum, to do something more than just exhibit beautiful objects. Here it is not the individual images that deconstruct (although a few could be seen that way) but the inclusive, horizontal presentation.

Lars O. Ericsson