Breaking the Frame: a photography exhibition that aims to change your perspective
New ROM show focuses on little-known historic works from around the world
Like so much history in the western world, the story of photography is traditionally told from a white, male, Eurocentric perspective. The truth is that it’s far more colourful and diverse – something that U.S.-based photo-historians Phillip Prodger and Graham Howe reveal in the wide-ranging, tradition-busting new exhibition, Breaking the Frame.
The show, making its North American debut at the Royal Ontario Museum this month, sheds light on the major contributions of little-known photographers – many of them female and/or BIPOC – while at the same time refocusing on such icons as Diane Arbus and Robert Frank to give a clearer picture of their artistry.
“The fact is that photography is democratic and pan-global, but the histories have never really reflected that,” Prodger says. “We’re trying to come to grips with the true diversity and expanse of photography over time.”
Breaking the Frame features close to 100 photographs, stretching from the origins of the art form in the early 19th century to the present day, and encompassing not just European and North American works, but those of photographers in Africa, Asia, Oceania and Central and South America.
The exhibition is the first to be drawn from the Solander Collection, an eclectic array of, to date, some 1,000 images purchased by Howe and Prodger. Howe, an Australian by birth, says the collection originated a couple of years ago, when the pair were in a London pub bemoaning the “imperial, colonial biases” of many museums.
“We were of a common mindset about how an alternative history of photography could be written,” he says. “So, we threw the gauntlet down and said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s acquire this history the way we see it.’”
The two veteran curators named their collection after the solander – in museum parlance, a protective box used to store photographs and other flat items.
Breaking the Frame was organized by Curatorial, Howe’s California-based museum-services company, of which Prodger is executive director of exhibitions. Although they hadn’t worked with the ROM before, they saw the multifaceted institution as the perfect venue for its debut.
“It is not a traditional art museum,” says Prodger, who got to know the ROM when he was a research fellow at the National Gallery of Canada. “It includes these deeper dives into cultural activity all around the world. It’s the perfect platform to discuss photography in all its richness.”
The ROM, meanwhile, felt that Breaking the Frame was especially timely. “We wanted to do an exhibition of photography that was not just a beautiful show,” ROM director and CEO Josh Basseches says, “but one that also emphasized the issues of identity and diversity that are on people’s minds today.”
The museum has contributed several photographs from its own collection and its curatorial liaison for the show is Dr. Deepali Dewan, Dan Mishra Curator of South Asian Art & Culture, who specializes in India’s photographic history.
Breaking the Frame traces the way photography has been used creatively as it evolved over time. In the beginning, it was simply an adjunct of drawing and printmaking, while the technology itself was cumbersome and not accessible – a far cry from the selfie-taking iPhone of today. “We have this extraordinary camera in the gallery that was owned by [19th-century British photographer] Henry Peach Robinson,” Prodger says, laughing. “It’s the size of a hippopotamus!”
Early European art photographers Robinson, Oscar Rejlander and Julia Margaret Cameron are featured with their then-controversial experiments in photomontage – manipulating negatives to make imaginative compositions. In the same spirit is a contemporaneous work by an unknown Indian artist, which combines a photo of a maharaja and a tiger with lavish painted embellishments.
As photographic technology became more widespread, it led to fascinating applications around the globe. “We’ve tried to leave no stone unturned in terms of what was happening in different countries,” Prodger says. He points especially to the recently rediscovered Chinese master photographer Lang Jingshan, whose 1930s landscapes emulated Chinese ink paintings.
“He made the argument that the whole industry of photography has been dominated by this western idea of perspective – and it’s wrong,” Prodger says. “There’s no reason why we can’t make compositions that are true to the Chinese aesthetic, meaning that you can see through, above and around a subject when necessary.”
Many of photography’s “household names” – Arbus, Frank, Man Ray, Ansel Adams – are present in the show, albeit with uncharacteristic works. Adams, the environmentalist famed for his majestic mountain landscapes, is represented with a very urban image – a shot of an old water tower in San Francisco. Prodger says the large picture, taken with a then-new Polaroid negative, Type 55, reflects Adams’s work as a product tester, as well as his use of the over-sized print. “That’s one of the contributions he made to contemporary photography that is mostly forgotten.”
The show’s inclusiveness leads to many refreshing perspectives. Howe highlights a photograph by early-20th-century Canadian Cree artist Richard Throssel of a Crow community in Montana that displays a distinctly Indigenous point of view. “The way he saw encampments were not your typical heroic, teepee-against-the-sunset images, but nestled and integrated into the landscape,” Howe says. “He had a more environmentally harmonious way of seeing the world.”
Breaking the Frame will introduce viewers to many such important artists. Its aim, however, isn’t to focus on individuals or singular works.
“It’s much more about the evolution of thought and the different ways that photographers approach their craft at various times in history,” Prodger says. “What you’ll see is almost a history of ideas, of visual representation, over the last 150-200 years.”
Adds the ROM’s Basseches: “Even if you’re an aficionado of photography, this show will be a surprise.”
Breaking the Frame runs from Aug. 14, 2021 to Jan. 16, 2022 at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with the Royal Ontario Museum. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.