José Oiticica Filho and His Role in Defining Postwar Photographic Art (São Paulo, 2017)

I had the honor to present my research about the Brazilian photographer José Oiticica Filho (Rio de Janeiro, 1906–1964), a key figure of Brazilian modernist photography who made a global impact on the understanding of photographic art in the 1950s. I contributed to a conference dedicated to studying his oeuvre.

The conference took place on August 22, 2017, and coincided with an exhibition of his work in Galeria MaPA, São Paulo, Brazil, July 11 - August 31, 2017.

I was invited by art historian and curator Marly Porto. 

Watch the video recording of my talk on the Galeria MaPa Facebook page:

My current research deals with the ways how the idea of photographic art was defined and negotiated on a global level after the Second World War. During the 1950s, photographers throughout the world were struggling for the recognition of their creativity and the artistic potential of photography. The works by Brazilian photographers and especially José Oiticica Filho were extremely visible and important in this struggle.

One of the publications which documents the global scope of this struggle is the Yearbooks by the International Federation of Photographic Art (FIAP). These Yearbooks showcase photographic art from more than 50 countries. They include works by Oiticica Filho as well as many other members of the Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante.

 Spread from the 1960 FIAP Yearbook (with works from the 1958 FIAP Biennial). Left:  José Oiticica Filho  (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil),  Abstraction . Right:  José V. E. Yalenti  (São Paulo, Brazil),  Architecture .

Spread from the 1960 FIAP Yearbook (with works from the 1958 FIAP Biennial). Left: José Oiticica Filho (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), Abstraction. Right: José V. E. Yalenti (São Paulo, Brazil), Architecture.

Oiticica Filho's work is central to my research because he introduced radical, non-representational work into the field of postwar photographic art which consisted mostly of two other types of photography - one of them based on pictorialist aesthetics, the other - on documentary, humanist photography. Oiticica Filho’s approach was radically different. His work was asserting that photography can be an art form, and that this art form is free from the task to depict  anything from the visible reality. Instead, it creates a reality of its own. His work is a bold statement of photography’s artistic independence. No doubt his work served as an inspiration  for many postwar photographers who were exploring the creative possibilities of photography.

The attention Oiticica Filho's work is receiving recently is long overdue, and I am especially thrilled to be part of the movement among art and photography historians that is concerned with revisiting the postwar histories and looking beyond the usual shortlist of famous photographers from France, Germany, and the U.S.

It is also remarkable that the conference on José Oiticica Filho in São Paulo coincided with the first major museum retrospective of the work by one of his sons, Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980), To Organize Delirium in the Whitney Museum in New York (July 14 - October 1, 2017). 

Read the essay (in Portuguese) about José Oiticica Filho by Marly Porto-download the pdf here

View selected works by José Oiticica Filho on the web site of Galeria MaPA



¿Qué separa a los fotógrafos de los artistas? My article translated into Spanish

"¿Qué separa a los fotógrafos de los artistas?" is my article "Into the Photographers’ Universe: What Separates Photographers from Artists?" translated into Spanish and published in October 18, 2017 edition of MALBA Diario, online magazine of the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires(MALBA), Argentina. 

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The Past is Present: Time and Space in Māra Brašmane’s Photographs of the Riga Central Market

The Riga Central Market is a landmark structure in the center of Riga, capital city of Latvia. It was built in the 1930s.  Renowned Latvian photographer Māra Brašmane has observed everyday life in this market in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and into the 2000s and 2010s. Through the changes in the marketplace you can notice the changes that Latvian society underwent in these decades. 

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The Family of Man: Photography Exhibition that Everybody Loves to Hate

“The greatest photographic exhibition of all time—503 pictures from 68 countries—created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art,” says the cover of the photo-book accompanying exhibition The Family of Man. The exhibition took place at the Museum of Modern art (MoMA), New York, from January 24 to May 8, 1955. It was highly popular—the press claimed that more than a quarter of million people saw it in New York. But it gained its central role in the twentieth century photography history largely because of its international exposure. The U.S. Information Agency popularized The Family of Man as an achievement of American culture by presenting ten different versions of the show in 91 cities in 38 countries between 1955 and 1962, seen by estimated nine million people But, contrary to the popular reception, scholarly criticism of the exhibition was—and continues to be—scathing. 

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Photokina 1956: A Revolt Against the Universal Language of Photography

The leaders of the U.S. and West Germany, international organizations such as the UN and UNESCO, the photography industry, and photographers around the world all shared a similar idealism. Their praise of photography as a universal language, however, was unanimous only in theory. In practice, art exhibitions organized within the framework of Photokina 1956 revealed a chasm between two radically different understandings of photography.

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The Myth of Straight Photography: Sharp Focus as a Universal Language

That photography is a language, and a universal one at that, was a popular metaphor in the 1950s. Such a language, as photographers and politicians claimed, could finally unite all people of the world because it transcends languages, cultures, religions, political positions, and any other differences. Although today such a belief in the power of photography can seem naïve, in the decade following the end of the Second World War it expressed a hope for a better—peaceful—future. But not just any kind of photography was believed to be a universal language. When Rothstein and many others in the 1950s were talking about photography as a universal language, they arguably had “straight,” documentary photography on their mind. But exactly what kind of photography is “straight,” and why it was supposed to be so universal?

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Underexposed Photographers: Life Magazine and Photojournalists’ Social Status in the 1950s

Today, we are used to seeing documentary images by photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White, Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Doisneau as fine art prints in art museums and galleries. But most of these images were initially made for the magazine page where the photographer’s name often went unnoticed. The US-based illustrated weekly magazine Life was instrumental in the process of photographers gaining more recognition and global exposure. However, this process was neither smooth nor free of obstacles. 

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The Selfie: More and Less than a Self-Portrait (New York, 2016)

"The Selfie: More and Less than a Self-Portrait," an invited talk at the symposium What Now? 2016: On Future Identities, organized by Art in General in collaboration with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics (May 20-21, 2016). New York City, May 21, 2016.

The talk. Photo: Anne Barlow.

Download symposium booklet PDF and view the video recordings of all talks and panel discussions on Art in General web site here.

I am very grateful to Anne Barlow, director of Art in General, for inviting me to be part of this exciting symposium.  

My talk was included in the panel "Technology and Presentations of the Self," excellently moderated by Soyoung Yoon.  I had the pleasure to discuss my research with two inspiring co-panelists, Daniel Bejar and Sondra Perry. We were joined by Evan Malater.

The panel discussion. Photo: Anne Barlow.

I am thankful to Carin Kuoni, director of Vera List Center for Art and Politics, for co-organizing and hosting the symposium. I wish to thank also Kristen Chappa and Lindsey Berfond of Art in General for making this happen.

My talk was based on a critical revision of some of the methods and findings of my co-authored research projects on social media photography such as Selfiecity (2014), Selfiecity London (2015), and The Exceptional and the Everyday: 144 Hours in Kyiv (2014) as well as subsequent research articles written by me or co-written with Lev Manovich.

See a short summary of the talk on the news section of this web site.

For a theoretical background, see my article "The Networked Camera at Work: Why Every Self-portrait Is Not a Selfie, but Every Selfie is a Photograph" published in the catalog of the 2016 Riga Photography Biennial.

Excerpt of the talk:

Selfies belong to what Vilém Flusser calls the universe of technical images. As such, these images have functions and characteristics that are different from traditional images such as paintings or drawings.

According to Flusser, the traditional images were observations of objects, whereas the technical images always are computations of concepts.

It follows that the technical images are not reproductive but rather they are productive. In other words, technical images are not a mirror of reality, but rather a projection, a constructed and produced image.

Therefore we could say that selfies are tools of production or construction of a self, rather than a representation of a pre-existing self.

Then what do selfies mean?

But to ask, what any photograph - a technical image - means, “is an incorrectly formulated question,” Flusser wrote in his book Into the Universe of Technical Images. “Although they appear to do so, technical images don’t depict anything: they project something. To decode a technical image is not to decode what it shows but to read how it is programmed.”

And furthermore, “We must criticize technical images on the basis of their program. Criticism of technical image requires analysis of their trajectory and analysis of the intention behind it. This is because technical images don’t signify anything: they indicate a direction.”

I would argue that the direction that selfies indicate is more away from reflection of the self in an art-historical sense and more towards the interaction with the apparatus of image-making and image-sharing which includes not only the image, but also the devices and software.

Taking the Selfie Seriously: A Study of the Most Misunderstood Genre of Photography (Riga, 2016)

"Taking the Selfie Seriously: A Study of the Most Misunderstood Genre of Photography," an invited talk at the Riga Photography Biennial symposium "Image and Photography in the Post-Digital Era" (April 22-23, 2016), Riga, Latvia, April 22, 2016. Symposium was organized by curator and art historian Maija Rudovska.

 Talk "Taking the Selfie Seriously: A Study of the Most Misunderstood Genre of Photography" in the symposium " Image and Photography in the Post-Digital Era",  Riga, April 22, 2016. Photo by Hon Sun Lam.

Talk "Taking the Selfie Seriously: A Study of the Most Misunderstood Genre of Photography" in the symposium "Image and Photography in the Post-Digital Era", Riga, April 22, 2016. Photo by Hon Sun Lam.

The talk was based on some of the methods and findings of the research project (2014) and subsequent research articles written by me or co-written with Lev Manovich.

For a further elaboration of the arguments proposed in the talk, see also my article "The Networked Camera at Work: Why Every Self-portrait Is Not a Selfie, but Every Selfie is a Photograph" published in the catalog of the Riga Photography Biennial.

The talk argued against the marginalization of the selfie as a notorious and outrageous kind of photography produced by reality TV stars and other celebrities as well as immature and psychologically unstable teenagers.

The findings of Selfiecity showed that some of the popular assumptions about the selfie are not true, and emphasized the diversity and cultural difference that can be communicated via this genre of popular photography.

Furthermore, the talk pointed to the two extremes of presentism in the popular discourse about the selfie: one describes this genre as something unprecedented and unique, whereas the other attempts to directly compare today's selfies to, for example, the painted self-portraits of the artists of the Renaissance. Both of these approaches lack methodological clarity and seem to overlook the historical specificity of the selfie and the particular cultural context in which this genre exists.

These popular misconceptions about the selfie at times make it complicated to view the selfie as just one of the many sub-genres of popular photography. This talk offered an alternative approach and discussed the benefits and limitations of combining computational analysis with humanities methods in order to make sense of the selfie.


Art and Communism: A Love-Hate Relationship (New York, 2015)

"Art and Communism: A Love-Hate Relationship," a guided tour in the exhibition Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art, curated by Boris Groys (February 6 – March 28, 2015), at The James Gallery, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York. March 3, 2015.

At the guided tour "Art and Communism: A Love-Hate Relationship" in the exhibition “Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art” at The James Gallery, The Graduate Center, CUNY. Thanks to Jennifer Wilkinson.

People who have experienced communism tend to dislike it. People who have not experienced it tend to like it. This tour will trace the ‘specter’ of communism in the works on view, while also engaging in a broader discussion of the complex legacy of Karl Marx’s original observations about nineteenth-century Manchester. The spirit of communism was responsible for many contradictory events: it inspired the historical Russian avant-garde, supported the oppressive regime of Stalin, fascinated the students of Sorbonne in 1968, and supported Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Together we will practice Marxist dialectics in order to consider both sides of this ‘specter’.

At the guided tour "Art and Communism: A Love-Hate Relationship" in the exhibition “Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art” at The James Gallery, The Graduate Center, CUNY. Thanks to Jennifer Wilkinson.

Avant-Garde in a Cottage Kitchen: Photographs by Zenta Dzividzinska from the 1960s (Malmö, 2014)

"Avant-Garde in a Cottage Kitchen: Photographs by Latvian artist Zenta Dzividzinska from the 1960s," The Moderna Museet, Malmö, Sweden, November 20, 2014.

Invited speaker on the occasion of a contemporary art exhibition Society Acts (September 20, 2014 - January 25, 2015), The Moderna Museet, Malmö, Sweden. Co-curator of the exhibition, Maija Rudovska, had included in the show a selection of photographs by Latvian artist Zenta Dzividzinska. My talk was aimed at introducing the Swedish public to the artist's oeuvre and the broader context of Latvian photography in the 1960s.

The talk presents the extraordinary life and artistic career of Latvian artist Zenta Dzividzinska (1944-2011), focusing on her artistic output of the 1960s. Her choices were untypical and unconventional for the art world under the Soviets, and her works have remained relatively invisible even now. She chose photography as her major medium in time when photography was not considered a "real" art. Being almost the only woman in the competitive and patriarchal circle of unofficial art photographers in Riga, she succeeded in gaining their respect while still in her early twenties.

However, her favorite subject - photographic depiction of everyday life in a country house featuring members of her extended family - was regarded as unsightly and ridiculous, thus most of her work has remained unpublished even now. That’s also where the cottage kitchen in the title of the talk comes from – that’s her parents’ little house in countryside, a village called Iecava in Southern part of Latvia. Even though she was educated in art school in the capital city Riga, and all the art world was happening in Riga, and all the jobs were there, most of the time Dzividzinska resided there and commuted to Riga. The small and cramped kitchen was a makeshift darkroom for her photographic work.

What understood meant by the word “avant-garde” in the title – in this case, I use the term to describe a radical practice, something that is ahead of time, a practice that is still to be understood by the public much later. Despite her being acknowledged as one of the leading fine art photographers in the late 1960s, during this decade Dzividzinska had only one solo-show – in 1965, in an art bookstore in Riga. Her next (and last) solo-show followed in 1999.

Women at Work: Artistic Production, Gender, and Politics in Russian Art and Visual Culture (Riga, 2014)

"Women at Work: Artistic Production, Gender, and Politics in Russian Art and Visual Culture," Contemporary Art Center Kim?, Riga, Latvia, June 12, 2014.

 From the left: Alise Tifentale and Cristina Kiaer.

From the left: Alise Tifentale and Cristina Kiaer.

Invited speaker (together with Dr. Cristina Kiaer) on the occasion of a contemporary art exhibition Little Vera, dedicated to the 125th anniversary of the Riga-born Russian artist Vera Mukhina (1889-1953). The exhibition was organized by curator Zane Onckule at the contemporary art center Kim? in Riga, Latvia.

Artists in the exhibition: Ella Kruglyanskaya and Sanya Kantarovsky. View more installation shots of the exhibition.

 From left: Ella Kruglyanskaya, Alise Tifentale, Cristina Kiaer, and Sanya Kantarovsky in the exhibition  Little Vera.

From left: Ella Kruglyanskaya, Alise Tifentale, Cristina Kiaer, and Sanya Kantarovsky in the exhibition Little Vera.

Excerpt from the talk:

As part of my larger research project dealing with women as image makers and images of women in the twentieth century, I am investigating the relationships between labor and its representation in art and visual culture in the late Imperial Russia and early Soviet Union. My research, which focuses on photography but is not limited to it, also raises questions regarding art historical methodologies and terminology, as very often the standard tools and methods of western art history and criticism are not directly applicable to art and visual culture produced in the Soviet Union.

Art historian Jo Anna Isaak was one of the first scholars in the early 1990s who opened up a discussion about application of western feminist critique to Soviet art and who tried to find out why and how Soviet “feminism” or women’s emancipation movement was different from its Western counterpart, and why later Western feminist movement ideas did not gain any popularity among the Russian / Soviet / post-Soviet artists.

For example, Isaak looks back at the Russian history of the 19th century and argues that one of the reasons why the ideas of Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock about the artist and woman as marginalized figures in the Western bourgeois society are not relevant when we look at the same time period in Russia, is the fact that there was no such bourgeoisie in the first place.

Latvian Art Talk. Just what is it that makes Latvian art so different, so Latvian? (New York, 2013)

Just what is it that makes Latvian art so different, so Latvian? A talk on Latvian contemporary art at Art in General, New York, May 4, 2013. Read more on Art in General web site:

As a co-curator (together with Anne Barlow and Courtenay Finn) of North by Northeast, the Latvian Pavilion for the 55th Venice Biennale, I am honored to present the pavilion and the artists, Kaspars Podnieks and Krišs Salmanis, in New York. The talk is part of the pre-biennale presentation of North by Northeast which includes also an exhibition of Podnieks’ and Salmanis’ work in the storefront Project Space of Art in General (March 5 – March 30, 2013).

Works by Latvian contemporary artists Kaspars Podnieks and Krišs Salmanis question the identity of a nation that has to grapple with its always marginal position in the politicized geography of Europe. Under the Soviet rule, Latvia was the westernmost borderland of the Soviet Union. The point of reference radically shifted after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Latvia regained its independence and paradoxically found itself on the north-eastern most border of the European Union. The ideological implications of this changing and always imaginary political geography provoke insecurity and doubt in terms of self-fashioning: what does it mean to be a Latvian artist or a Latvian in general? Is it the patriarchal rural lifestyle, appreciation of local landscape as a redemptive Arcadia, self-imposed laws of merciless work ethic, or traditional oppression of any socially or politically explicit thought? Or rather searching for an escape route from all of it?

Read my essay Just what is it that makes Latvian art so different, so Latvian? in the catalogue of North by Northeast, the Pavilion of Latvia in the 55th Venice Biennale (2013). 

View the slides from the talk here:

The 'Cosmopolitan Art': The FIAP Yearbooks of Photography, 1954–60

“The ‘Cosmopolitan Art:’ The FIAP Yearbooks of Photography, 1954–60.” Paper presented at the 105th Annual CAA Conference, New York City, February 17, 2017.

 Photo: Elizabeth Cronin.

Photo: Elizabeth Cronin.

“It is a diversified, yet tempered picture book containing surprises on every page, a mirror to pulsating life, a rich fragment of cosmopolitan art, a pleasure ground of phantasy”—this is how, in March 1956, the editorial board of Camera magazine introduced the latest photography yearbook by the International Federation of Photographic Art (Fédération internationale de l'art photographique, FIAP). This paper will analyze this “cosmopolitan art” of photography in the first four FIAP yearbooks, published between 1954 and 1960 on a biennial basis.

FIAP, a nongovernmental transnational organization, was founded in Switzerland in 1950 and aimed at uniting the world’s photographers. Its members were national associations of photographers, representing 55 countries: seventeen in Western Europe, thirteen in Asia, ten in Latin America, six in Eastern Europe, four in Middle East, three in Africa, one in North America, and Australia. Photographs for FIAP yearbooks were selected from works submitted by all member associations.

The resulting large format hardcover photo-books consisted of average 120 full-page photogravure reproductions, grouped by country. These yearbooks, I argue, complicated and politicized the understanding of photographic art in the 1950s. On one side, the yearbooks presented a groundbreaking attempt to reject Western Europe as the only center of creativity in favor of a model of global participation. On the other, the organization’s ambition to survey the cultural diversity of the world at times was limited by ethnographic stereotyping (e.g., recurring depictions of Catholic priests or nuns in the Spanish section or portraits of geishas from Japan).

This paper was part of the panel "Photography in Print," moderated by Andrés Mario Zervigón, Rutgers University. The two other presenters in our panel were C.C. Marsh, The University of Texas at Austin, who presented Between Art and Propaganda: Photo-Monde in the Service of the UN, and Meredith TeGrotenhuis Shimizu, Whitworth University, who presented The Spectacularization of Disaster: Photographs of Destruction in Commemorative Coffee Table Books.

Thank you to all who came to our panel. It was a great honor to present my research and discuss it with the two other scholars in our panel.

 The panel "Photography in Print" at the CAA 2017. From the left: Meredith TeGrotenhuis Shimizu, C.C. Marsh, and Alise Tifentale.

The panel "Photography in Print" at the CAA 2017. From the left: Meredith TeGrotenhuis Shimizu, C.C. Marsh, and Alise Tifentale.