Sculpture in the Age of Photography

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Photography is a child of the industrial era—a medium that came of age alongside the steam engine and the railroad—and one of its critical functions was to provide access to previously inaccessible worlds. Among its early practitioners, Charles Nègre photographed sculpture in the cathedrals of Chartres and Amiens and in Notre Dame, in Paris, capturing rarely seen sculptural details, while in London Roger Fenton and Stephen Thompson documented the ancient statuary in the British Museum, making clear the new power of collecting institutions.

With the advent of the handheld portable camera in the early 1920s, photographers gained the flexibility to capture changing sculptural arrangements from mobile viewpoints. André Kertész, for instance, recorded unexpected juxtapositions of art and other objects in the studios of artist friends in the 1920s, including Fernand Léger and Ossip Zadkine. Focusing on details in this way, photographers have interpreted not only sculptures but also the contexts of their display, and the results often show that the meaning of an artwork is not fixed but rather dependent on the beholder’s perception of it at any given moment. Louise Lawler’s pictures taken in the 1980s and 1990s highlight the role architecture, labels, pedestals, wall paint, floorboards, and other environmental details play in the interpretation of art. Like Barbara Kruger’s and Cindy Sherman’s photographs, they foreground issues of representation, underscoring photography’s engagement in the analysis of virtually every aspect of art.