How do we measure the importance of a life? Who or what is worth remembering? These are some of the questions raised by photographs such as the ones on display in Matter of Life and Death, an exhibition on view from 16 May to 9 September 2016 in the gallery of the School of Art at Aberystwyth University in Wales.
Today it is easier than ever to produce and share photographs. Subjects diversify. Perspectives broaden. We no longer have to deal with precious materials or finite rolls of film when determining who or what is worth a shot. Yet images are also more readily manipulated. Realities are filtered and faked. The black-and-white photographs in Matter of Life and Death predate our digital age. Fragile and bold, these infinitely multipliable images of singular moments and individual lives were intended to live and matter as prints.
Looking at images of people and places can make us aware of our cultural differences. But it is not difficult to find universals in photographs produced worlds apart. Struggling farm workers in 1930s Alabama are shown alongside striking miners in 1980s Sardinia and South Wales. The town of Aberystwyth, where the exhibition is staged, is featured next to Palermo and Bangkok. Visitors to our gallery will see the faces of children. But they will also face the aged, the dying and the dead.
All of the photographs are from the University’s collection. They were chosen by School of Art students who then debated how to exhibit them and create a narrative. Only the medium and the title had been decided beforehand by me, the instructor of Staging an Exhibition, a course in curating that each year culminates in a show like this one. Previous exhibitions include Queer Tastes, Untitled by Unknown, and Face Value.
The selections students made for Matter of Life and Death are journalistic and surrealist, propagandistic and personal, mass marketed and private. Some photographers – Walker Evans, Mario Giacomelli and Angus McBean among them – are famous. Others are unknown. Learning about the identity of a photographer may well influence the way we look at the work that photographer has produced. A child may look less innocent once we know that the man behind the camera was Erich Retzlaff, a photographer who supported and propagated fascist ideals.
There is no particular order in which these photographs should be experienced. Themes such as dying traditions or endangered environments are suggested, but there are no conclusions. As in life, material circumstances limit our choices. The paths we forge are our own.
Matter of Life and Death is open to the public until 9 September 2016. Admission is free.
Curators: Megan Evans, Rebecca Fletcher, Suzanne Fortey, Emma Game, Emily Griffin, Elizabeth Kay, Kirils Kirijs, Michael Kirton, Maria Lystrup, Kate Osborne, Amy Preece, Georgia Record, Emma Roberts, Samantha Robinson, Emily Smyth, Bethany Williams, Gemma Woolley; with support from Harry Heuser (text) and Neil Holland (design)