The George Eastman Museum will open the exhibition Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World on June 18 in the Project Gallery. Organized in partnership with the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, the exhibition of photographs is drawn primarily from the Eastman Museum’s rich holdings, supplemented by works from the Morgan and a private collector. It will be on view through September 18.
As its name declares, photography is a means of “writing with light.” Photographs both show and tell, and they speak an extraordinary range of dialects. Sight Reading explores the history of the medium as a lucid, literate—but not always literal—tool of persuasion. Over the past 175 years, photography has been employed in countless fields of endeavor, from art to zoology and from fashion to warfare.
Co-curated by Lisa Hostetler, Curator in Charge of the Department of Photography at the Eastman Museum, and Joel Smith, Richard L. Menschel Curator and Department Head at the Morgan Library & Museum, Sight Reading features a broad range of material—pioneering x-rays and aerial views, documentary narratives, and recent examples of conceptual art—organized to emphasize the variety and flexibility of photographic practices. In 1936, artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) defined “the illiterate of the future” as “ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.” Moholy-Nagy was not the first to argue that photography belonged to the arts of commentary and persuasion, but the JPEG and the “Send” button have changed the terms of this argument in unexpected and exciting ways.
“One of the most enjoyable parts of putting this exhibition together was realizing the extent to which some photographs depend on visual conventions in order to understand the information being conveyed,” said Lisa Hostetler. “For example, one of the Étienne-Jules Marey photographs—made before it had become standard to read a sequence of images from top to bottom (rather than from bottom to top)—may look odd to viewers today. In the nineteenth century, however, this image would have seemed astounding not because the sequence was upside-down, but because it illustrated a ‘real’ animal in motion. Joel Smith and I had an extraordinary array of similar revelations while working on this show, and we look forward to sharing them with visitors to the exhibition here in Rochester.”
As the modes and motives of camera imagery multiply, viewers continually learn new ways to read the information and assess the arguments in a photograph. This exhibition features work by William Henry Fox Talbot, Eadweard Muybridge, John Heartfield, Lewis Hine, John Baldessari, Sophie Calle, and Bernd and Hilla Becher, among many others.