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Sunderland Repository records the research produced by the University of Sunderland including practice-based research and theses.

Photography and the Art Museum

Moschovi, Alexandra (2023) Photography and the Art Museum. In: Encyclopedia of Visual Culture, Digitisations, Transformations, and Futures. Bloomsbury Academic, Visual Arts, London. (Submitted)

Item Type: Book Section


Photography entered the museum soon after its invention in the 19th century, primarily as a reproduction technology and as a scientific process rather than an expressive medium. Precisely because of its multiple utilitarian functions, photography’s legitimisation as contemporary independent art was delayed as was its inclusion in the art museum as a consequence.

Acquiring reproducible photographs as museum collectibles in the early 20th century did not just undermine the art museum’s foundational values of originality, uniqueness, and creative genius. It also challenged its traditional functions of exhibiting, collecting, classifying, and interpreting for photography tested the permeability of the art museum’s collections with photographs furnishing the archive, the library, the study collection, as well as the permanent collection of artworks. The early medium-specific delineation of photography based on its intrinsic qualities tampered with its polymorphism, reproducibility, unprecious thingness, and commonplaceness to allow for a conveniently distinct category in the art museum. Yet, the paradigm shift from the photograph to the ‘photographic image’ brought about by the advent of digitization and digital imaging in the 1990s advocated more open-ended institutional definitions of photographic practice. In the new millennium, the mutable nature of contemporary “post-photographic”, born-digital imagery, the ubiquity and sheer volume of “networked images” and the “softwarisation” of photographic practice raised another complex set of questions for museum workers with photographs (re)materializing as physical objects in the museum’s “white cube” galleries and dematerializing in its “black box” screening rooms and virtual online space.

Beginning with early examples of photography’s accommodation in the art museum in the modern period, the text explores how photography has moved from seat to seat in the art museum: catered to in its own departmental niche, placed in a category with video, film, and new media, or considered an intermedia art practice alongside painting and sculpture integrated into visual arts collections. Using examples of contrasting institutional policies and key exhibitions that address different aspects of contemporary photographic practice at different historical moments (including but not limited to shifting materialities, post-photographic and post-media practices, participation, and social engagement), the text reveals the complexities of institutionalizing such a heterogeneous medium.

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Uncontrolled Keywords: photography, art museum, collecting, exhibitions, curating, digitization
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Depositing User: Alexandra Moschovi


Item ID: 17230

Users with ORCIDS

ORCID for Alexandra Moschovi: ORCID iD

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Date Deposited: 16 Jan 2024 11:03
Last Modified: 16 Jan 2024 11:03