Harry Callahan on view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Citing Diane Arbus – “it is important to take bad pictures” – an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art examines how Modernist photographers unsettled the received rules of photography in the pursuit of art. Don’t! Photography and the Art of Mistakes sees ten sections of nominal technical errors, including solarisation, double exposure and lens flare, document the photographers who learned from their mistakes in order to alter the course of photographic history.

The ‘out of focus’ section highlights the work of Harry Callahan, whose photographs from the 1940s explored total abstraction and the technical potential of the photographic medium, often making use of double or triple exposures, extreme contrasts and collage. Callahan’s 1953 double portrait Eleanor and Barbara, Chicago shows the photographer’s wife and daughter as out of focus silhouettes. Despite the lack of definition, the two figures are clearly identifiable in the context of Callahan’s wider body of work given their relative sizes and postures, with Eleanor’s figure and facial profile gently orientated towards her daughter. As part of the New Bauhaus set up by László Moholy-Nagy in Chicago in 1937, Callahan’s work shared the principles of Bauhaus design, demonstrating a mastery of light, form and line whilst simultaneously embodying an emotive sense of time and place.

Whilst the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a proliferation of prescriptive texts by self-proclaimed photography experts published in amateur manuals and periodicals, Don’t! Photography and the Art of Mistakes questions where these largely technical dogmas originated from, and looks to probe the role of institutions in reinforcing their status amongst both viewers and practitioners. As curator Clément Chéroux states, “The main idea of the exhibition is to explain that the role of a museum is not to define what is a “good” photograph and what is a “bad” photograph. […] A photograph could be good in a certain place, and at a certain time, and ten or twenty years later, in another place, the same photo could be something completely different.”

One of the first American museums to recognize photography as an art form, SFMoMA now has the largest space permanently devoted to photography of any US museum. Don’t! Photography and the Art of Mistakes has been curated by Clément Chéroux, with the assistance of Matthew Kluk and Sally Martin Katz, and runs through December 1, 2019 at SFMoMA.

Read the full interview with the curator here.

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