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An Alternative History of Photography

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The book’s first section explores previous works of photographic history that lent themselves to shaping a ‘canon’. To discover why an alternative lens is always necessary, author Prodger critiques these earlier surveys as male-dominated, exceptionally white, with a tendency to focus on technical aspects instead of creative expression. He calls for the 21st century to strive for a more perfect vision, one in which diverse practices across Australia to Uzbekistan and from China to Chile are seen with greater clarity. John Wilson is a freelance historian. He currently works as a BSL lecturer and guide for a number of high profile institutions including the National Gallery, Historic Royal Palaces, Royal Academy and Science Museum, London. With over 130 works from the Solander Collection , An Alternative History of Photography invites you to look again at well-known works and new discoveries by major artists, alongside forgotten greats, regional champions and unknown artists. Drawn from the Solander Collection, a research collection founded by Graham Howe and Philip Prodger, The Alternative History of Photography finds new angles and timelines within photography’s broad history by taking diversity and democracy as its organising principles. Featuring obscure photographic works alongside more recognisable images, photography is celebrated as the decentralised and participatory medium that it is. The publication is accompanied by a major exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery of the same title, which runs until 19 February 2023.

The real history of photography is a vast collection of inter-connected stories stretching from East Asia to West Africa, from New Zealand to Uzbekistan. Join historian John Wilson for a tour in British Sign Language of selected works in the exhibition An Alternative History of Photography: Works from the Solander Collection. His sustained immersion into the communities he photographed remains without parallel. Whilst marking a moment of deindustrialisation, Killip's stark yet tender observation moves beyond the urgency to record such circumstances, to affirm the value of lives he grew close to - lives that, as he once described 'had history done to them', who felt history's malicious disregard and yet, like the photographer himself, refused to yield or look away. This exhibition is curated by Phillip Prodger and organised by Curatorial Exhibitions in collaboration with The Photographers’ Gallery. The exhibition is accompanied by a major new book, published by Prestel.Chris Killip, retrospective is co-curated by Tracy Marshall Grant and Ken Grant. With thanks to the Martin Parr Foundation and Chris Killip Photography Trust. One of the challenges of the presentation is to highlight the singularity of this collection, which is distinguished by the proportion of non-European authors. “Among the 101 photographers on show, 52 are Westerners and 49 are indigenous. This near-parity was made possible by the rise, over the last decade, of acquisitions of works by artists from the four continents,” explains Christine Barthe, head of the heritage unit at the Quai Branly’s photographic collection and co-curator of the exhibition with Anabelle Lacour, head of the photographic collection. The publication’s main section, Plates with Commentary , takes readers on a loose-knit chronological journey starting from the advent of photography. The usual suspects, Henry Fox Talbot and Hippolyte Bayard are joined by less familiar photographers such as the enigmatic Madame Gelot-Sandoz. Extended captions expertly pull specific photographs into focus, explaining how these images stand up to a wider historical narrative. Landscapes also feature prominently in this vast collection. As the curators explained, “right from the start, the production was diverse, responding to different demands and a variety of contexts.” For example, some shots were taken for aesthetic purposes and/or as “souvenirs.” They are the work of the first travelers, who can be described as explorers or adventurers. At the time, equipment was heavy and cumbersome. Other landscapes were photographed as part of topographical mapping, as a kind of “location scouting.” In this case, photography was used for its documentary value and served colonization projects.

Once trained—for example, in Europe, during diplomatic visits—local photographers took hold of the new technique, each bringing to it the specificity of their own culture: for example, in a large-format portrait of an anonymous Indian maharaja, enhanced with brightly-colored gouache, dating from 1910–20 Drawn from the extraordinary Solander Collection, this pioneering, alternative history of photography is based on principles of diversity and democracy, allowing famous works to be seen with fresh eyes, and giving more obscure works the platform they deserve. As in the West, from the outset portraiture played an important role in other parts of the world. From the 1860s onwards, photo studios sprang up in major cities, notably in Australia and West Africa. “The images produced corresponded to the demands of the tourist market hungry for exoticism, while at the same time attracting wealthy local customers who came to be photographed,” explain the curators. As we cycle through the book, the reality of Prodger’s line “There are an infinite number of answers to the seemingly simple question: ‘What is the history of photography?’” becomes abundantly clear. The collection contains many rarities and ‘firsts’. James Presley Ball’s portrait of a gentleman sitter provides insight into his studio’s operations and political activism. Anthropological images servicing the colonial project are critiqued. A collection box for the Franciscans of Tilburg’s missionary work shows how anonymous photographic portraits were used to re-enforce ideas in the West. Meanwhile, photographer Helen Stuart’s hand-painted, romanticised Portrait of a Maori Woman ( 1885) is explained as an embodiment of colonisation, as the wāhine’s likeness is obscured and romanticised through painted overlay becoming a European artefact.

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