Upon the recommendation of my airbnb host, Dragan, I spent the afternoon at the Rudolfinium Gallery engaged in Controversies – A Legal and Ethical History of Photography. It was one of the most well-curated and thought-provoking exhibits I’ve been to in a long time. As I entered the first room of photographs, I was given a metal clip. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, then noticed that each photograph in the exhibition had a stack of papers beside it. The history of the photograph and the reason it was included in the exhibit was included in Czech on one side and English on the other. The papers had holes punched in them and stacked neatly on the clip, so that by the end of the exhibition I had my own exhibition memoir. Just another thing that Prague does so right (in addition to ceilings, beer, castles, and heated towel racks).
The first piece in the exhibit highlighted the Portrait of the Count of Cavour by Mayer and Pierson. The photographers discovered that others were reproducing their portrait and took them to court, claiming the other reproductions were fake. Legally, in order for something to be considered fake, the original had to be a work of art. Was photography art? The Parisian courts ruled yes and photography gained the status of art in 1862.
From there, the exhibit focused on what is considered art, particularly around socially controversial topics (i.e. child nudity, nudity in general, alternative lifestyles); when subjects should be compensated for being photographed; what constitutes plagiarism in use of photographs or ideas; and the use of photographs for propaganda.
The last point, using photographs to further propaganda, particularly resonated with me. Images move me. I see a picture and a lasting impression is made. What then, when the image isn’t representing what it claims?
The most impressive example of this was the photo taken by Robert Maass in Timisoara, Romania. I remember when this photo was published, and feeling naively horrified that such brutality continued to occur in the world. The photo was meant to convey the atrocities that took place during the dictatorship of Ceausescu. Later it was learned that leaders of the revolt had staged the photo session, and the man crying over the woman and baby in the mass grave wasn’t related to either. The woman was purported to have died of cirrhosis, and the baby (not hers), of SIDS.
Over a hundred photographs later, I was exiting the museum, still pondering the questions raised by the exhibit, and feeling simply in awe of seeing original prints of iconic photographs.