School Photos and Their Afterlives
January 8 – April 12, 2020
As the visitor enters School Photographs and Their Afterlives, a small but powerful exhibition curated by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer for the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, they encounter an inscription: “Here and there you peek out from behind history’s veil and glimmers of your brilliance can be seen in the contours shaping the New World. Before and After became the hallmark of your existence.” One of several quotes inscribed on the gallery walls, this one derives from the audio to Carrie Mae Weems’s The Hampton Project (2000), installed at the heart of the show. Three fabric “veils” imprinted with Frances B. Johnston’s photographs of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute of Virginia, a trade school for Native and African American youth, hang from the ceiling. These images, from 1899, are superimposed over two larger canvases depicting “before” and “after” class photos documenting the efficacy of the forced assimilation of Native Americans.
Weems’s installation conveys the central insight of this exhibition: school photographs are techniques of power that subject individuals and groups to the ideological projects of state and empire. To that end, the curators combine displays of archival school photographs from Europe, the United States, and their colonies with works by contemporary artists, like Weems, who exploit the genre. While the overwhelming impression these photographs convey is one of regularization, deindividuation, and control, there are nonetheless “glimmers” of resistance, personality, and even hope that the curators and artists underscore. The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly publication, School Photos in Liquid Time: Reframing Difference (University of Washington Press, 2020), that deepens and expands upon its argument.
School photographs may seem an oblique way to address the barbarism of Western civilization, but the genre asserts itself as a logical and even necessary site for inquiry. For school photographs are ubiquitous, their pictorial conventions uniform across geographies and over time. We all have class pictures that are practically interchangeable. And yet, they trigger powerful sense-memories, helping us to recall what the carefree days of elementary school or the expectation of graduation felt like. We often use these mnemonic prompts to compose our life stories; they help us to mark our “befores” in the “after” of retrospection.
The invention of photography coincided with the systematization of state education throughout Europe and the Americas. This observation is one of several curatorial prompts to consider the relationship between the medium itself and the specific genre of school photography. In the sequence of works that opens the show, for example, artists explore the tension between the individual and the collective while highlighting the material conditions of the photographic image. A work by Vik Muniz of a Queens classroom from 1956, comprised of cut up and collaged found photographs, poses questions about “the disassembling and reassembling” of the individual at the heart of the schooling project. Nearby, a class photo in which artist Diane Meyer renders the face of each child in cross-stitch prompts questions about how the classroom “stitches children together,” while also calling attention to the shift from analog to digital photography. Meyer’s hand-sewing pixelates the faces, enacting a loss of resolution that conjures a host of associations, from the way memory degrades over time to the history of needlework as an arena for women’s education.
These establishing shots set the stage for the heart of the show, which concerns the school photo’s role in the assimilationist and segregationist projects of states and empires. To that end, the display is split into two middle sections that address “Europe and its ‘Others’” and “The United States and Its ‘Others.’” These are situated on either side of Weems’s installation, which itself connects the racially segregated school system in the US to the ethnic violence of Europe under Nazi occupation. In the archival photographs and works of art pertaining to Europe, we glimpse traces of communities erased by genocide. Photos of young Armenian, Jewish, Romanian, Palestinian, Sierra Leonean youths line up in neat rows and stare, dourly or precociously, into the camera’s lens. In some instances these photographs assert pride in achievements or the promise of new horizons. In others, they recall that conforming to the conventions of the school photograph genre was one way for stigmatized groups to assert their humanity.
On the opposite side of the gallery images address assimilation, internment, and desegregation in the US. Here, works of art are less melancholic than those documenting European genocide, and often testify to the forbearance of oppressed peoples. This section culminates with Lorie Novak’s Above the Fold (1999– ), a video loop showing images of the front page of the New York Times that begins on the day after the Columbine High School shooting and continues to the present. When the infamous image of children being led, single-file, by their teacher out of Sandy Hook Elementary School appears, we are struck by the way that the militarized discipline of schooling served the purpose of evacuation.
Novak’s piece transitions to the final themed section of the show, “Imagining Justice,” where works by Marcelo Brodsky and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer explore the school photograph as posthumous evidence. In the latter’s Level of Confidence (2015), a facial recognition camera scans visitors for a “positive match” to one of the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Mexico. With its repurposing of surveillance technology to search endlessly, but fruitlessly, for the murdered students, this work challenges our complacency as witnesses to the atrocities school photos inadvertently index. And it poses questions anew about how the photographic technologies of the 21st century mark time and enable memory.