The Morgan’s First Photo Exhibit Like Strolling Through the Internet, but Without LOLcats

February 18, 2014 Updated: February 18, 2014

NEW YORK—Have you ever played the game on Wikipedia based on the idea of six degrees of separation? The challenge is to get from the Wikipedia entry about something like melatonin to San Francisco Giants within six clicks, relying on the in-text links to other entries. 

Kudos to you if you haven’t; that game is a major time drain. However, tracing seemingly dubious relationships between events, things, and ideas can also expose you to areas of knowledge you’ve never considered before. 

The Morgan Library & Museum organizes its new exhibit, A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play, exactly around this “going down the rabbit hole” concept. It is the Morgan’s first photo exhibit since the founding of its photography department in 2012 under curator Joel Smith.

A Collective Invention begins by marrying traditional film photography to the notion of Internet keywording. 

Down the Rabbit Hole

What’s the connection between an Englishman walking through the woods of Darjeeling and a Native American boy painting a cave wall? Both people were photographed over their shoulders. If you were looking for something very specific on or Shutterstock, the keywords “over the shoulder” would come in handy. 

In an exhibit, though, the use of keywords is a refreshing conceit.

Each wall label points you onto the next image using a descriptive phrase alluding to the photos’ content, composition, color, or even colloquialisms they evoke.

A sweeping view down Marseille’s Rue de Noailles leads directly to a circular image no bigger than a cup stain. In it, a tiny figure disappears into planted rows inside a greenhouse. Though the size and scale differ greatly between the two pictures, they both exhibit deep photographic perspective. 

A photo of a crowd of people takes you to a “crowd” of Teddy Roosevelt headshots collaged together, which takes you to a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. 

Some connections are less obvious. Others are humorous. Some photos mark historical happenings, like the creation of the presidential sculptures on Mount Rushmore. 

Others make you marvel at the role photographs have had in our most mundane personal moments. For example, a set of wallet-sized prints are framed together with only their handwriting-covered backs showing, leaving you to guess what exactly was “censored,” or why “This one is awful.” 

As you progress through the exhibition, the definition of photography expands, including a three-dimensional photo, and then a hologram, mixed media, and finally a photo that isn’t a photo at all, but an image created by scratching the surface of photoreactive paper. 

Because this is not the sort of exhibit you’d wander freely through, this guided discovery leads us to bigger and bigger surprises about world events, culture, and the diverse forms photography can take.

These photos and objects themselves come from 25 private collectors as well as the Morgan’s own holdings.

The Morgan had always had photographs in its collection. In its years as a public institution since 1924, the photos have trickled in by gift and occasionally by purchase. Now, the photos in its holdings number several thousand, some by unknown or amateur photographers, others, prints by major masters. 

An Exciting Beginning

Photography departments are gaining prominence in cultural institutions across the country. As the Morgan grows its photography department, it must find its unique voice. Smith has his work cut out for him, and this exhibit is a promising example of things to come. 

To make this great mixed bag of photographic images coherent, only the logic of the Internet could have worked. Keywords are associative by nature, allowing the unexpected to hit you with every new image. 

Yet, the in-gallery experience is not something that can happen online—curatorial decisions to choose certain keywords over others raise some interesting questions. You can’t selectively view images based on your personal aesthetic or favorite subject matter as you do online. Plus, the endlessly scrolling page of Google image search results can’t do the sheer size and detail of some of these images justice.

The ultimate value of this exhibition is that it demonstrates how, even when the Internet inundates us with images every day, it can’t replicate the in-person interaction between a human and a work of art. We can’t stop the great flood of JPEGs and memes from attacking our eyeballs. But we can borrow concepts from the online world to make that experience even richer.


A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play
Feb. 14–May 18

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Ave.