I first met Liz Siegel shortly after I opened FLATFILEgalleries on Peoria Street in 2000. Her interest in photography has always been curious and acute, and her knowledge deep. It’s no wonder then that she has championed the creation of “A Field Guide to Photography and Media,” which opens at the Art Institute on November 19 and the accompanying book, “The Art Institute of Chicago Field Guide to Photography and Media,” edited by Antawan I. Byrd and Elizabeth Siegel with Carl Fuldner, which will follow in early 2023. I sat down with Liz, who is now AIC Curator of Photography and Media and who curated the exhibition, to learn more about these epic undertakings.
How did this project come about?
We began planning the publication well before the pandemic. Although the Art Institute has been collecting photographs actively since 1949—and exhibiting photography for over a century, since 1900—the museum had never published a book about our photography and media holdings. This became an exciting opportunity, not only to celebrate our collections, but also to think more broadly and deeply about the field, about photography’s place both in the museum and in the world.
The field of photography and media—global, multivocal and always evolving—encompasses art, technology and society itself. Billions of images are made daily and circulated through instantaneous and wide-ranging platforms. Here at the Art Institute, our collection holds some 25,000 objects from across three centuries and six continents—works designed for the wall, the page, and the screen. So how do we make sense of this extensive collection, this expansive field? That’s what the “Field Guide,” both the book and the exhibition, attempts to do.
Our core team of curators, Antawan Byrd, Michal Raz-Russo, Matt Witkovsky and I, later joined by postdoctoral fellow Carl Fuldner, hit upon a structure based on keywords instead of categories often used in photographic histories, such as technologies, geographies, or artistic movements. These urgent, compelling terms cut through old ways of thinking to link disparate works and reveal insights about photography and media.
How many images will be in the show and the book, and how far back do the earliest images go?
The book features some 400 photographs that show photography’s range: from the earliest works of the 1840s to twenty-first-century images, originating in countries spanning the globe, from humble snapshots or press photographs to works scaled for the gallery wall. We’ve got examples of photographic books, albums, magazines, video, installations; the variety is thrilling.
I had to constrain that somewhat to fit into our regular photography galleries (galleries 1-4, on the museum’s lower level), but I’m still including about 150 works in an exuberant, salon-style display. There will certainly be something there for every lover of photography and media.
Let’s talk a bit more about the sections you and your team developed that link keywords in the book to the organization of the exhibition.
The publication’s seventy-five keywords were carefully chosen to reflect current concerns about photography as an art form and about its role in contemporary society. For the book, the editors asked seventy-five different contributors—scholars, curators, artists—to write opinionated essays addressing their term in the context of a selection of Art Institute works.
In planning for the accompanying exhibition, I began by clustering these keywords into manageable groups. It turned out that most fell easily into one of eight categories, basically meta-questions about how images function today, which in turn became sections for the exhibition. For example, looking at the “Field Guide” keywords “Circulation,” “Modernity,” “Negative,” “Reproduction,” “Survey” and “Travel” together led me to consider the ubiquity of photography and media (a section I call “Photography Everywhere”). “Archive,” “Document,” “Faith,” “Fiction,” “Memory,” “Objectivity,” “Perspective” and “Science” provoked questions around the extent to which we can believe what we see in a photograph (“Truth and Fiction”). The keywords “Citizen,” “Ecology,” “Imperialism,” “Labor,” “Morality,” “Press,” “Propaganda,” “Resistance” and “Witness” focus on how photography shapes our social and political interactions (“The Politics of Photography”). The other sections for the exhibition are “Making,” “The Photographic Object,” “Photographer, Subject, Viewer,” “Identity,” and “Photography and Other Arts.” In each section, visitors are invited to make connections across works—brought together in this new context—to think anew about how photography shapes how we see.
Obviously, on a project of this magnitude, many people contributed.
The book itself is a team project: co-edited by Antawan and me, with Carl Fuldner, and featuring an essay by Matt which gives a terrific assessment of photography and media in museums through a history of our own collection. But then we also have the seventy-five essay contributors, not to mention our whole editorial and production team—it’s been a huge, complex undertaking! And with every exhibition, there are so many behind-the-scenes players, from our conservators and preparators, to editors and interpretive staff, to exhibition and graphic designers and art installers.
I know this has been a total labor of love for you. You’ve been at the Art Institute of Chicago in one capacity or another since you joined as a research assistant in 1997 to your current position as Curator of Photography and Media. At the beginning of 2023 you’ll be leaving the Art Institute to take the title of chief curator of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Is this a dream come true?
I have loved being part of the Art Institute family, and so leaving is bittersweet. But I am truly excited about the possibilities at the Milwaukee Art Museum and look forward to really getting to know their amazing collections, staff and community.
Publishing a book and opening an exhibition on the Art Institute’s terrific collection and the opportunity that affords to reflect on the larger field of photography and media seems like a good way to go out.
“A Field Guide to Photography and Media” opens November 19 and continues through April 10, 2023 at The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.