For Joel Leivick, the Carrara marble quarries — the place where Michelangelo obtained the stone from which he liberated his David — represent a complex geological and cultural terrain. Laura Volkerding’s silver gelatin prints document centuries old craft workshops for a striking visual commentary on place as cultural continuum. David Spero posits that place is not only a piece of area in space but also in time; in his “Settlements” series, which are chromogenic color prints of dwellings in the English countryside, he investigates “human projection on landscape.” Brian Rose defines place as visual and mental mapping; together with Edward Fausty, he chronicles the decay and rebirth of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in a series of digital c-prints shot with a 4×5 view camera. These photographers present a few of the provocative ruminations on place, and the range of photographic techniques, on view in the MIT Museum’s current exhibition, “Photographing Places: The Photographers of Places Journal, 1987-2009.”
“Photographing Places,” is a comprehensive exhibition of photography that appeared in the environmental design journal Places from 1987-2009. Contemporary photographic practice was presented in Places through an innovative series of picture portfolios. The twenty-one American and European photographers whose work appears in this exhibition consider a wide variety of topics related to how place is created, perceived and experienced. Visitors can listen to interviews with several of the photographers and photography editor Cervin Robinson at stations within the exhibition for additional information about the works on view and the journal Places.
Founded in 1983 by architecture faculty at MIT and the University of California, Berkeley, Places is an interdisciplinary design and planning journal with particular emphasis on the public realm as physical place and a social ideal. Photography served as a means of studying place, and works by prominent artists focused on place making were included in stand-alone essays.
Rather than have “text and photography lean on each other” — to borrow a phrase from Cervin Robinson — the format of Places deliberately referenced a publishing strategy found in architectural journals in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, in which a portfolio of photographs on special paper was bound-in to illustrate an article. This means of presentation was then a practical necessity, because photographic prints could not be set with type on a press. With the introduction of half-tone reproduction methods from the late 1870s, photographs could be printed together with text on the same sheet of paper at the same time. This technological development changed the way published photographs were understood: the text contextualized the photographs, just as the photographs illustrated the text.
In contrast, the photographic portfolios in Places appeared with a bare minimum of text – merely a brief introduction by the photographer or editor, and captions identifying subject and location. Guided by photography editor Cervin Robinson, Places asked photographers to make sets of pictures to be published in distinct portfolio sections without any direct relationship to the magazine content. The portfolio subjects were not the latest architectural, urban or landscape designs as would be found in professional journals. Instead, the subjects often arose from ordinary situations and conditions, such as the simple presence of structures or environments, and the differences or changes in those structures or environments over time.
Many of the photographs in the exhibition will be given to the MIT Museum to be incorporated into their photography collection. As curator Gary Van Zante points out, Minor White created a study collection of photographs when he was designing a photography curriculum at MIT in the 1960s. Van Zante desires to build on this tradition of acquiring photography for the MIT collection in hopes of recreating the ambience of White’s day — with photography resonating deeply with the MIT science and engineering mindset.
Photographing Places is on view in the Kurtz Gallery for Photography from January 22, 2015 through August 16, 2015. The exhibition is curated and written by Gary Van Zante, curator of architecture, design and photography at the MIT Museum, with contributions by Cervin Robinson, Donlyn Lyndon and Harrison Fraker.