Monday, September 15, 2014
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Fabulous photographic ephemera
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MIA curator Ted Hartwell wore this mask of photographer Richard Avedon's face at a party for Avedon while he was in Minneapolis. Avedon arrived at the party to find approximately one hundred faces - all his - staring back at him. (MPR Photo/Marianne Combs)
Photographers make photographs. They also make a lot of other stuff - press releases, brochures, business cards - things that aren't meant to last. But if they do survive, they can become quite interesting.

Minneapolis, Minn. — When it comes down to it, it's really odd that the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is having this exhibit at all.

First off, it's not art. Secondly, while it's titled Fabulous Photographic Ephemera, don't come expecting to see a bunch of fabulous photographs. There are hardly any, except for those glued to wedding certificates, or reprinted in postcards and advertisements.

Curator Christian Peterson says in fact, most everything in this exhibit was meant to be thrown away.

"By definition ephemera is not meant to be kept and so if you do keep it, it gets rather interesting" says Peterson.

Fabulous Photographic Ephemera is filled with little bits and pieces of things you would never expect to see matted under glass. There's a photographer's business card, a valentine, postage stamps, and news clippings. There are record albums, letters, even a nylon stocking. It was used as an announcement of a show of sexually provocative pictures.

These items span photographic history, from its birth in the early 1800's right on up to the present day. While none was made or collected with the intention of being put in a museum exhibit, Petersen argues together they shed light on photography in a way a photograph could not.

"I think that most of the items tell you something about a particular time in the history of photography and American living as well as something about a particular photgrapher," says Peterson.

Fabulous Photographic Ephemera includes some items that people will probably find precious, such as letters from photographers Richard Avedon and Henri Cartier-Bresson to the MIA's chief curator of photography, Ted Hartwell. These were casual letters setting up future exhibits, or thanking Hartwell for including their work in a particular catalog.

Gallery visitor James Weber says this exhibit is right up his alley. He's been collecting photographic paraphernalia for 25 years. One of his prize pieces is an antique Italian viewing device called a "megalethoscope." It's not in this show; it's too valuable. Weber says for him the exhibit is a chance to not only look back into photographic history, but to get a better sense for certain photographers.

"Otherwise you look at a photograph and it's just a photograph and you know if you're not familiar with that photographer it doesn't mean a whole lot other than it's a nice picture to look at," says Weber. "But if you have other items by the photographer, it just makes it a lot more interesting, I think."

Weber's now thinking his own collection might merit an MIA show. However it's unlikely the MIA will be doing another exhibit of this kind soon. Curator Christian Peterson recognizes that by framing these objects and hanging them up on the wall, the MIA has actually made them appear more valuable than they really are.

"These become objects that I find particularly beautiful to behold and unfortunately you can't handle them. Normally you could, I mean most of these things have been handled frequently because they are not held up as one of a kind special rare things," says Peterson.

But now they are being held up as special, rare things. For just a few months, little bits of paper, matchbooks and a beer bottle are enjoying their time in the sun. A coffee can imprinted with an Ansel Adams photograph was found in a garage holding rusty nails. Now it sits in a museum that displays precious Chinese jade, ancient tapestries, and fine oil paintings.

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