A new exhibition and accompanying book attempts to convey the state of humanity in the 21st Century through the work of just 140 photographers. Whose work would you choose to include, and why?
With historian Holly Roussell, long-established photography curator William A. Ewing has taken on this near-impossible task, collating almost 500 images by 140 leading photographers — most of whom have fine art backgrounds — in order to try and describe the state of mankind as it exists today. Renowned photographer Edward Steichen attempted something similar in the 1950s and his exhibition, The Family of Man, was widely acclaimed.
The vast majority of photographers chosen by Ewing have numerous publications to their names, long lists of international exhibitions, and make up part of museum photography collections around the world. Some huge names are included: Michael Wolf is on the book's cover, Edward Burtynsky has been selected for several of his images, and Cindy Sherman makes a very distinctive contribution. Among its 352 pages, I was delighted to stumble unwittingly upon Mike Kelley, a long-time friend of Fstoppers, and an image from his project Airportraits.
Many of the photographs are on such a scale or complexity that it sometimes takes a moment to understand what is being portrayed. Unlike the simplicity and directness often seen in commercial work, these large format images are often a sophisticated blend of minimalism and complexity. The density of what is contained is at times reflective of contemporary visual culture and its assault on our senses, a phenomenon that requires a subconscious level of expertise in order to filter the noise from what is important. A small fraction are images produced by DSLRs or similar, but even some of the reportage is produced through large format (see the work of Simon Norfolk).
Every image tells a multi-layered story: many use a deadpan aesthetic that creates a level of detachment and (pseudo-) objectivity that prompts the mind to find connections beyond the frame. Globalization, urbanization, commercialization, incomprehensible systems driven by algorithms, trade agreements, millennia-old cultures: the story is endless. Ewing's project is ambitious and impossible, but certainly worthwhile.
Selecting merely four images to include in this article does the exhibition a disservice: these images do not work in isolation, and many are part of much larger bodies of work that are intended to be seen in context. As part of Civilization, they are intended as starting-points for discovery, opening doors to photographic worlds outside of its pages.
The book raises the question: if you were to try and describe all of humanity through just 500 photographs, which artists would you include, and why?
The exhibition, Civilization: The Collective Life, begins on 18 October at the MMCA in Seoul before moving to Beijing, Melbourne and Marseille. A second exhibition begins in London on 7 November at Flowers Gallery. The book, Civilization: The Way We Live Now is available from 16 October.
Lead image: Pg 8/9 HENRIK SPOHLER In Between, 29 Container terminal, Hamburg, Germany, nd © Henrik Spohler
All images provided by publisher Thames and Hudson and used with permission of each artist.