Since the inception of the medium photographers have documented spectacular scenes and events along with the curious spectators who observe them. This summer the Philadelphia Museum of Art presents Spectacle: Photographs from the Collection, an exhibition of more than 40 black and white and color photographs, dating from c. 1883 to 2002, which explore the fundamental relationship between a spectacle, its audience, and photography itself. Spectacle includes photographs by Eugène Atget, Robert Frank, Gordon Parks, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Graham, and many others.
Featured work in the exhibition includes images of rapt sightseers taking in natural and man-made wonders, participants in tightly orchestrated civic or religious productions, and impromptu moments of drama or self-display. Taken together these photographs demonstrate the camera’s unique ability to capture the immediacy of a spectacle as well as the excitement, raw emotion, and even the boredom sometimes exhibited by its spectators.
“This exhibition explores the idea of what constitutes a spectacle, and the complex relationship between the spectator and the event itself,” Julia Dolan, the Horace W. Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography, said. “The Museum’s collection is rich with photographs that capture spectacular events, some of them famous and others more intimate or localized. Often, the camera contributes to or even creates the spectacle, and at times seems to blur the distinction between the onlooker and the apparent subject of their attention.”
Among the well-known sites and events captured in these photographs are: tourists at South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore monument; a crowd gathered to greet the Pope at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City; and the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. Other images present the viewer with a more random or impromptu scene, such as a fainting bride in a Paris garden, or a young woman smoking a cigarette, seated slightly apart from her fellow guests at a costume party.
Whether capturing moments of shared grief, astonishment, or celebration, the images reveal what appears to be a common impulse for artists working in photography, to seize an opportunity to record the intense yet fleeting sights, gestures, and emotions on public display during spectacular events. Klein’s The Pope Appears, St. Peter’s Square (1956) captures the nearly ecstatic expressions on the faces of the crowd gathered to greet the pontiff. Adrian Siegel’s Modern Museum (1965) offers a silhouetted view from behind of three visitors in a museum as they contemplate a large abstract painting displayed on the gallery wall.
Friedlander’s photograph Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota (1969) offers a sophisticated consideration of the relationship between a spectacle and its audience, by turning away from the well-known historical landmark to capture an ironic scene, in which tourists stand inside the visitors’ center, seemingly disinterested in the site they traveled there to witness.
A recent acquisition featured in the exhibition is a photograph by Philadelphia native Dave Heath (American, born 1931) of the city’s annual Mummers parade. Heath’s photograph shows a group of spectators of various ages gathered in a doorway and looking on in varying states of anticipation and interest. Another Mummers Parade images in the exhibition was made by Burk Uzzle (American, born 1938), and highlights a different aspect of this longstanding civic tradition by focusing on an individual performer.
Also of local interest is artist David Graham’s Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, (1981) which was acquired specifically for the exhibition. This large-scale (approximately 31 x 40 inches) color print captures a group of birders on a rock outcropping as they peer through binoculars at a lure in the near distance.