The International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York was founded 50 years ago by Cornell Capa, brother of the revered photojournalist Robert Capa. Cornell Capa founded the ICP to champion “concerned photography”—a term he used to describe a form of socially and politically minded imagery created to provoke positive change in the world at large. Its first holdings came from works donated by his brother. The earliest remnants of that collection are now about to be taken out of the archives, dusted off and exhibited to mark this half-century of existence.
“Cornell Capa envisioned a first in the field of photography,” says the ICP director David E. Little. The institution, he says, was conceived to be a place where “discussions about concerned photography would take place”. Nowhere else, back then, was discussing the medium in such a way.
The Manhattan institution is one of the world’s leading spaces for exhibiting and teaching photography and other image-based practices, serving over 3,000 students each year. It has become synonymous with the roving art world locales of Manhattan, with its first long stint on the Upper East Side, then at a Midtown space, before relocating in 2016 to the Lower East Side, first in a building on the Bowery and then in a large space in the Essex Crossing development in January 2020.
This year, the institution will host a series of exhibitions reflecting on its half century of advocacy for this sometimes contested artistic medium. The first of these shows, ICP at 50, will provide “a thematic exploration of the many photographic processes that comprise the medium’s history”, according to the organisers. The exhibition will “show the depth and breadth of the ICP holdings”, an archive that “celebrates photography’s evolution from the 19th century to the present”, Little says. It will “also present the work of contemporary artists who influence our understanding of photo-based art today and its future potential,” he adds.
Among the standout works will be prints by Gerda Taro, a German photographer who, like Robert Capa, documented the Spanish Civil War. Taro is remembered as the first woman photojournalist to have died covering the frontline in a war but she does not enjoy the same reverence as Capa.
Another highlight will be the work of Weegee, a macabre Ukrainian-born New Yorker who would spend his day working as a press photographer, before, in the evenings, tuning into police radio frequencies so as to arrive first on murder scenes, urban tragedies and apartment fires.
In recent years, the ICP has tried to develop a collection that reflects how artists use photography today. Photography was the medium of a vanguard of radical, Black women artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson whose experiments in montage, forgotten archives and performance have become influential to today’s contemporary practitioners such as the Californian artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya, whose work is also on show.
Others in the exhibition include Guanyu Xu, who was born in Beijing and is now a lecturer at the University of Illinois. His work speaks of the banal plethora of images that fill our lives, from the camera roll and death scroll on our mobile phones to the CCTV cameras on the corner of every street. It hints at photography’s relentless infiltration into the centre of our beings, and perhaps also the basic impossibility of assimilating its meaning now, tomorrow or in another 50 years’ time.
Complementing ICP at 50 will be the first ever survey of personal work by David Seidner, spanning the 1970s to the late 1990s. Seidner was a well-known New York fashion photographer for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair. His commercial work was admired and became part of the fashion mainstream, but the experimental imagery he took when moonlighting as a fine art photographer was largely ignored. Seidner took hallucinatory and expressionist portraits of friends and associates from the New York art world which, increasingly, meditated on the unfolding Aids crisis—the disease that eventually took his life in 1999. Much of Seidner’s personal work has never been displayed before, but, viewed today, reveals how multifaceted, adaptable and inchoate the camera can be.