Yesterday I got to check out a few spots, some of which I usually never go to anymore. Feeling up for a change, I strolled from Grand Central past 5th Avenue and saw the glorious New York Public Library with its fancy lions winking at me. “Why not give it a try?” I thought and entered the building. I’ve actually never really taken the time to go inside but usually walk right past it. So I was determined to finally pay attention to the great interior and the ceilings
every tourist is hyping about. But of course, as in so many instances, I was diverted once again. There was an exhibition on the very first floor, which I just couldn’t ignore. The Public Eye is a new photography installation and I was excited to check out the excessive gallery of images. It highlights 175 years of photography – from its tender beginnings in the 19th century to its mass distribution of these days.
Perhaps it’s fascinating to me how photography has evolved over the past decades. I started off with a simple Kodak, in which you had to put your own roll of film and wouldn’t dare to open up the back until it was used and rolled all the way inwards. I remember not being too fond of this type of photography, especially since processing time from the initial photo until its final development sometimes took months. The film had to be full in order for me to bring it to the drugstore. I was moreover fond of silly little Polaroid toys and the tiny images they created, which I stuck all over my closet door. The first selfies were born. Then, when I was 18, I finally got my first digital camera. Instant gratification! Party pictures, school snapshots – everything was documented from then on.
Looking back at how the first type of photographs had a metal background and resembled almost the fineness of a painting, it’s quite astonishing to see where technology has brought us. From these so-called Daguerrotypes over collector’s cards to glossy magazine covers – you will find a variety of interesting tidbits on photographic history in this informative exhibit. I was lucky to catch a free tour, since I was there at 3:30 pm. Our guide was excellent in highlighting the most important facts and impacts photographs have had throughout history. I got stuck at the section featuring images of Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Over 100 years ago it was clear that such pictures were doomed and almost extinct, so several photographers took it upon themselves to document life of Indians in their natural surroundings.
On to European photographers and documentations on the African planet. Shooting film back then came out amazingly clean and with a great depth of field. The story of a photographer documenting prostitutes in NY through a hidden window stuck to my memory. The same with a photographer seeking out every surveillance camera in Germany and taking a picture of himself standing in front of it. Some of these cameras are in remote rural areas, where there wouldn’t be much need for them. His point is obviously to show how surveilled our world has become nowadays and that our consent to document our lives in such a way is rarely given.
Facebook estimated that 300 million images are uploaded daily to its site. With such an insane amount of exposure, I am left wondering what standard pictures have to do with the art they were once viewed as. Or was an image always meant to document (our) life? In that case, why do we consider some images appealing and some not?
Criticism and awareness on these questions seem to have existed ever since photos became accessible to the general public. In 1931, a contest received 3 million submissions from over 89 countries. Of those images, only a handful beautiful pieces were selected as finalists and winner. Since the beginnings of photography, people were eager to share their third eye and receive praise or trigger a reaction from others. Perhaps it was and will always be about the message the photographer wants to convey. Which makes me wonder what message we want to convey when taking random snaps these days?
The Public Eye runs until January 2016. More info can be found under nypl.org.