The Presence of Photography in Museum Collections: The Specificity of a Medium – and of a Culture

[Fall 1995]

by Marie-Josée Jean
Conference and exhibitions co-ordinator

Since it was invented, photography has been recognized for the sensitivity and intensity of its formal expression. With the rise of modernism, attention was brought to bear on the ability of photography to crystallize fleeting moments.

This ambivalent relationship between the literal and the figurative led to a fracturing of the very notion of reality. Since then, the increasingly close links that photography has formed with other disciplines, most recently with computer technologies, have made its status even more equivocal. The specificity and eclecticism of photography have had a certain influence on the configuration of photography collections. Thus, the fourth edition of the MOIS DE LA PHOTO À MONTRÉAL proposes to feature the presence of photography in museum collections.

To highlight the many dimensions of photography in museum collections, we invited museums to participate in a series of exhibitions dedicated to the photographs in their respective collections, putting an emphasis on Quebec photography. These exhibitions offer the public an opportunity to discover photographic works many of which are rarely shown in these large institutions and the distinct photographic landscapes that fit their respective mandates and interests. In conjunction with these exhibitions will be a conference that we hope will make an impact on the future of photography collections in Quebec. Quebec and Canadian experts will exchange points of view regarding the current state of photography collections, and foreign experts will share with us the consequences of implementation of enrichment policies on recognition of the discipline.

The following questions will be asked in relation to the ambiguous status of photography: Should we focus on this medium’s specific qualities, or should we view it through the prism of its eclecticism? Should museums and other institutions build exclusively photographic collections, or should they integrate photographic works into other collections? The impact of the specificity of photography, positioned as it is at the crossroads of visual and media arts, is not negligible, since it will determine the configuration of collections today and in the future.

The issue of photography collections is quickly overflowing its borders and leading to a broader debate over the notion of cultural specificity. Should a photographic patrimony reflect the cultural specificity of a country or should it be formed in the image of a hybrid culture? Should we, in Quebec, create a new institution within which to gather Quebec photographic production?

These issues will be addressed at a time when, considering the important place photography occupies in the field of contemporary art, it has become imperative to make decisions with regard to creating collections. Acquisitions of photographs have decisive effects on the creation of a patrimony, and also on the national and international dissemination of photography.