Yesterday I went to see an exhibit at the Arlington Artisphere of the photographic collection of Frida Kahlo, the famed Mexican painter, wife and lover of Diego Rivera. Frida Kahlo: Her Photos is open through March 25. This is the only stop in the United States for this show, so I wanted to make sure I got to see it before it leaves. One of the very interesting things about this exhibit is that Frida was working as a painter at the same time a major movement in photography was occurring, and the collection shows, albeit tangentially, the intersection of her life with Modernist photography. She grew up in an artistic household – her father was a photographer, and she painted him as such in a portrait. There is even a fine-art nude figure study her father took of himself in the exhibit. Most of the works on display are snapshots, showing the effects of an artistic life as captured by some of the great early and mid-century photographers: Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Lola Alvarez Bravo, and Martin Munkacsi. These are almost all snapshots; in many cases, they are very small prints, and as such, Artisphere has arranged a system whereby visitors can borrow magnifying glasses to examine the photos up close. The downside to this is that the photos are often closely spaced on the wall due to their small size and the space limitations of the room, so sometimes it is hard to see other images because people are blocking them while examining another small image with the magnifying glass.
The entire exhibition is reproductions, not original images. The quality of the reproductions is in most cases first-rate; had I not read this in the introduction to the exhibit, with few exceptions I would not have known. This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine – I have seen several exhibits lately where substitutes for the original images were displayed. In this case there is a legitimate reason for the substitution – in Diego Rivera’s will, he specified that none of his or Frida’s photos were to leave Mexico. Without substitutes, this exhibit would not be possible. The only other legitimate reason I can see for using substitute images is in the case that the originals really are too fragile to display, or displaying them would mandate viewing conditions that would undermine the viewability of the rest of the exhibit. I like being able to see the frailties of objects, the fingerprints of age, time and care that have been deposited as signs of a rich and well-lived life. In this case, given that many of the original images were machine-printed snapshots made on dubious-quality paper, and some of the later color images were Polaroids, not known for their long-term color stability, setting the lighting at a safe level for the prints would indeed have compromised the exhibit.
As a general principle though, I would still argue against the propagation of substituting digital prints for original images; viewing a facsimile, even an extremely high quality facsimile, is really only one step removed from viewing the images online. This renders museums as physical entities obsolete. It also undermines the museum’s role and responsibility as a vehicle for education and connoisseurship, and preservation. Why worry about conserving art objects if we can just make simulacra and replace them time and time again as they wear out? Why worry about the authenticity of the object on display if the object itself is irrelevant, and the means to determine authenticity are lost because people can’t tell the difference between a silver-gelatin print, a platinum print and an inkjet? Lots of people can’t afford to own even a single example of the work of a named artist, let alone enough examples to derive a working knowledge of the artist’s methods and materials. Museums can, however, and by exhibiting the work, they can enable thousands to develop that critical eye.