Museum  November 25, 2019  Caterina Bellinetti

The Stories They Tell: A Hundred Years of Photography

© Troi Anderson

Troi Anderson, Untitled #12, 2016. Inkjet print. Collection of the Museum of Photographic Arts. Gift of the artist, Jon Doellstedt, John Mullen and Mike Brase, John Renner and Thomas Lane, and Fred Ross and Aaron Creurer.

The Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) in San Diego is celebrating photography with its new exhibition The Stories They Tell: A Hundred Years of Photography. The museum, founded in 1974 and opened in 1983, is one of the only three in the United States exclusively dedicated to the collection and preservation of photographic materials. Drawing from its extensive archive—nearly 9,000 works from 850 international photographers—the MOPA is exploring the history and development of photography in the past hundred years with The Stories They Tell.

© The Brett Weston Archive

Brett Weston, Untitled (Dune (detail), Baja California), 1968. Gelatin silver print. Collection of the Museum of Photographic Arts. Gift of Jack and Beverly Waltman.

Looking at the past of photography was not enough and the MOPA decided to pair The Stories They Tell with Dreamscapes, the museum’s annual youth exhibition that invites students, from kindergarten to the 12th grade, to submit their images. This year’s theme was dreams and the jury selected 100 works from more than 800 students resident in San Diego and Tijuana. The juxtaposition of past, present, and future enhances the relevance of both exhibitions. Deborah Klochko, the museum’s executive director and chief curator, noted that despite living in a world loaded with images, we are still not able to fully understand our visual culture.

“Through the exhibitions and programs that we offer at MOPA we help people understand the history of the medium, how context can change the meaning of an image, and how to read and interpret an image based on a variety of factors including, who made it, why it was made, and how it was made,” Klochko adds. Exhibitions like The Stories They Tell and Dreamscapes, therefore, have the purpose of helping viewers to navigate the history, development, and aspirations of photography. “By giving people the tools to understand a single image,” Klochko continues, “they are better prepared to understand the countless images that are streaming in our overly connected world today.”

© Troi Anderson

Troi Anderson, Untitled #23, 2016. Inkjet print. Collection of the Museum of Photographic Arts. Gift of the artist, Jon Doellstedt, John Mullen and Mike Brase, John Renner and Thomas Lane, and Fred Ross and Aaron Creurer.

Among the photographers chosen for The Stories They Tell, we find Troi Anderson, Brett Weston, Mark Klett, and Michael Light. Troi Anderson’s images focus on human spirituality and its connection with nature. Anderson extensively photographed voodoo practices in Haiti, focusing on the physical aspect of such practices: moving bodies drenched in sweat, faces conveying feelings of ecstasy, terror, and liberation. Similarly, his project Riverrun explored Hindu spirituality and its relationship with water in the city of Varanasi.

© Mark Klett

Mark Klett, Fallen cactus, new golf course, Pinnacle Pk, 3/4/84, 1984. Gelatin silver print. Collection of the Museum of Photographic Arts. Museum purchase, Las Patronas Acquisition Fund.

In a different way, Mark Klett also looked at the relationship between humans and nature. However, Klett’s interest was not towards religious practices but on the influence that human behavior has on nature. His Fallen cactus, new golf course is a photographic testament to the destruction that human development has on our landscape. A chopped cactus lies on the dusty ground surrounded by tire marks that clearly indicate human intervention in the plant’s premature death. Klett is also known for his rephotography work—the photographic juxtaposition of “now and then” of the same place or landmark—of the American landscape, especially Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Glenn Canyon. With the same intent, Michael Light, a San Francisco-based photographer and private pilot, has been aerially photographing the American settled and unsettled space, how human impact and the passing of time have been affecting the landscape.

© Michael Light

Michael Light, Sheep Hole Mountains at 400’, 0700 hours, Twentynine Palms, CA, 2000. Archival pigment print on aluminum. Collection of the Museum of Photographic Arts. Gift of Cam and Wanda Garner.

Brett Weston also photographed the natural world. His passion for photography began while living in Mexico with his father, the famous photographer Edward Weston. Thanks to his father’s influence and the proximity of artists such as Tina Modotti, Frida Khalo, and Diego Rivera, Weston’s photographs acquired a particular composition and sense of form. Interested in how the camera could transform common subjects into unidentifiable forms through close-ups, Weston became more and more abstract along his career. Yet, his primary subjects always came from the natural world: leaves, roots, sand dunes, and soil.

© The Brett Weston Archive

Brett Weston, Mud Cracks, 1977, gelatin silver print. Collection of the Museum of Photographic Arts. Gift of Jack and Beverly Waltman.

Although the exhibition covers only the last a hundred years of photography, The Stories They Tell offers a glimpse into the development of photographic technology while reminding us that the themes explored across the decades have remained the same. “Photographers have turned their cameras on the people, places and events that mean something to them.” Klochko remarks, “Images of family, our homes, the landscape, celebrations, our pets, these are universal themes that have been documented by the camera since the beginning of the medium.”

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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