New York

Photographer unknown, Construction of the Viaur Viaduct near Aveyron, France, 1899–1902, cyanotype, 8 3⁄4 × 11 1⁄4". From “Destruction and Transformation: Vernacular Photography and the Built Environment.”

Photographer unknown, Construction of the Viaur Viaduct near Aveyron, France, 1899–1902, cyanotype, 8 3⁄4 × 11 1⁄4". From “Destruction and Transformation: Vernacular Photography and the Built Environment.”

“Destruction and Transformation: Vernacular Photography and the Built Environment”

The Walther Collection Project Space

The fourth in a series of five consecutive exhibits at the Walther Collection’s New York project space titled “Imagining Everyday Life: Aspects of Vernacular Photography,” the show “Destruction and Transformation” makes demolishing structures and erecting newer ones look utterly routine. The images on view, taken mostly by commercial photographers from the past century who witnessed the altering of urban and rural landscapes alike for commerce and transportation, stand in contrast to the portraiture—ranging from mug shots to lost family keepsakes—that populated the previous three exhibits. This theme of industry prompts reflection about the Walther’s motivation in displaying photographs not necessarily intended for gallery walls.

Seven cyanotype prints—with their faint-blue reaction to sunlight—greet viewers to the exhibit. The suite tells the story of a bridge built piece by piece in 1895 to connect steep gorges in southwest France. The once incomplete metal parts of the Viaur Viaduct, which is still in operation, elongate like tired arms outstretched into the landscape’s chasm. Elsewhere, in a photograph from 1939, a sign reading danger, keep out attempts to create a barrier between the general public and the risky dismantling of New York’s elevated subway line. The spectacle of such an operation proves irresistible to the pedestrians stopping, without hard hats, to look. A “wealthy financier” hired the photographer Harvey F. Dutcher to record the el’s removal; four thousand of those photographs have here been edited to a sixty-image slide show lasting several minutes.

In a shift to saturated color, the Walther Collection blew up a single image from a design portfolio of Heath & Co., a mid-century signage outfit catering to business owners in sunny California. The image selected for a wall-mounted canvas features a 1970 movie marquee next to a photo store; a sedate blue car waits at a parking meter, placed as if to echo the palette of the theater’s tall facade. The remaining examples of Heath & Co.’s signs, once used to lure potential clients, play on a flat screen. In another part of the gallery is an unsubtle warning about coal companies acting like governments: A visual record produced by Coke Co. Inc. chronicles the building of Lynch, a small town in eastern Kentucky, between 1917 and 1920. While the original photograph album has been transformed into a slide show accompanied by a four photographic enlargements, the volume, like that of Heath & Co.’s, lives in a row of vitrines inside the floor-to-ceiling bookcases of the Walther’s most intimate space, its library. Perhaps compensating for the information lost when an image is repurposed, Brian Wallis, the show’s organizer, has provided links to subsequent landmarks of mine workers’ labor battles. Playing on a loop inside the library is a trailer for Harlan County, USA (1976), Barbara Kopple’s documentary film about a 1973 strike by mine workers in the titular county where Lynch is. The uncontained noise of town halls and of strikers clashing with police rebels against the exhibit’s seemingly objective records of development for profit.

The five exhibits of this series will unite at the Walther’s Neu-Ulm campus in south Germany in 2020, accompanied by a Steidl catalogue replete with papers from an October 2018 symposium featuring twenty all-star academics and curators, most of whom called for fewer taxonomies and more synthesized analysis of the institution’s circulating images. Thus far, “Imagining Everyday Life” has accumulated responses to the impossible question of what is “vernacular photography.” Once understood as images neglected by fine art and photographic histories alike, these ordinary, servile things resist categorization in part because of the dissonant range they encompass. (In the Walther’s own collection live state surveillance mechanisms and clandestine photos of trans women from the 1960s and ’70s.)

“Destruction and Transformation” also features artists such as Ed Ruscha and William Christenberry offering architectural observations as a recognizable aesthetic trope. Their presence seems intended to lend legitimacy to the works by some of the other “unidentified” photographers. The Walther is thus ensnared in a project of inciting debates while directing scholarship around vernacular photography, complicating its mission as a leading collector in the field.