When Allegra Cox ’18 began working at Scripps College’s Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery this June, she wasn’t sure where the opportunity would take her. Interested in art conservation as a high school student, Cox chose Scripps because it is one of few colleges that offers the major to undergraduates. But thanks to the gallery’s Wilson Internship program, her interests and experience have broadened. Cox spent her summer organizing an exhibition of photographs recently gifted to Scripps College’s permanent collection.
“Documenters and Storytellers: Photographic Narratives in the 20th Century,” which opened August 28 and runs through October 18, inaugurates the Williamson Gallery’s fall schedule of programs. Mary MacNaughton, director of the gallery, wanted the show to focus on the College’s photography acquisitions from the past several years, and encouraged Cox to frame their presentation in a way that resonated with her.
“It was a really exciting opportunity, because I had so much freedom with what I could choose and what the show could look like,” recalls Cox.
As she dove into the Williamson Gallery’s holdings, Cox began to think about the story she wanted to tell about the history of photography and its relationship to the history of art. “I became fascinated by this idea we have of documentary photography—that it is seen as having this very objective, journalistic approach, when, since its conception, it has [also] been a means for artistic expression,” she says.
Ultimately, “Documenters and Storytellers” aspires to open documentary photography—an approach to image making that chronicles real life, from street scenes to historic events—to a more nuanced appreciation. As Cox asserts, “It has long been worthy of artistic consideration, both in terms of content and composition.”
“We can use these photos as artifacts or historical records, to understand what was happening or what people were feeling at a particular time. But we can also see how photographers blended their own artistic take into those shots by making choices around composition, lighting, and framing.”
Combing through approximately 100 photographs gifted to Scripps over the past three years, Cox narrowed her selection down to 31 images by various artists, including Eve Arnold, Ilse Bing, Dmitri Baltermants, Leonard Freed, Michael Kenna, Leon Levinstein, Barbara Morgan, Tatiana Parcero, August Sander, and Marion Post Wolcott. The earliest works in the exhibition date to the turn of the 20th century, while the most recent are from the late 1990s. As Cox recalls, “The hardest thing was letting go of a few pieces that I really liked, but wouldn’t have worked with the overall story.”
Cox organized the works included in “Documenters and Storytellers” thematically rather than chronologically—an exercise that was, she says, her “favorite part of the process.”
“Before we hung everything, we laid it out, and I got to see how things best fit. I started off loosely grouping the photographs into four very broad categories—portraits, landscapes, images of war and conflict, and street photography. We talked a lot about why this image should go here, what was the impact of this image next to this image. I loved how the context and emotional impact of one particular image could be altered by the image next to it.”
Though she is still interested in pursing art conservation, Cox found the work of curating an exhibition gave her great satisfaction. She hopes that viewers who come to “Documenters and Storytellers” learn a bit about the history of photography as well as its importance to how we perceive the world. “It’s a huge part of our lives; with the digital age, we’ve become surrounded by images, making it important to think about how we rely on photography to tell our own stories.”
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