Kunsthaus Wien

Controversies. The Law, Ethics and Photography

04 Mar - 20 Jun 2010

© Michael Light
OAK, 8.9 Megatons, Enewetak Atoll, 1958, 2003

4 March – 20 June 2010

Some of the photographs in this exhibition may be quite shocking. For this reason, KUNST HAUS WIEN recommends that highly sensitive persons do not visit the exhibition. Persons under the age of 14 will not be admitted to the exhibition.

KUNST HAUS WIEN presents CONTROVERSIES, a spectacular new exhibition illustrating the problematic history of photography. All of the approximately 100 photographs on display have been the subject of controversies – some of them related to society and the media, others of a legal nature. What emerges is a sometimes moving, sometimes exciting odyssey through the world and the vicissitudes of published photographs. Among the pictures on display are numerous world-famous works by photographers such as Man Ray, Robert Capa, Lewis Carroll, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Oliviero Toscani, Robert Mapplethorpe or Todd Maisel.

Legal, ethical and political controversies have accompanied the entire history of photography since its invention in 1839. The rules that apply – or do not apply – to journalistic and artistic photographs today are the consequences of these conflicts and debates. Nevertheless, they are constantly being questioned and challenged anew. The exhibition CONTROVERSIES. THE LAW, ETHICS AND PHOTOGRAPHY documents this tension-laden history through numerous case studies. The result is a sometimes moving, sometimes exciting and in any case absorbing circuit of about a hundred photographs, each of which has its own story to tell. Visitors to the exhibition will have the opportunity to form their own opinions – for the middle course between premature censorship and uncompromising freedom of expression remains a delicate matter of subjective assessment.

The exhibition focuses on works that have overstepped boundaries and newly defined them, thus shedding light not only on the medium of photography but above all on the respective times, on society and on court decisions; in short, it focuses on great but often problematic moments in the history of photography. Since Lewis Hines’ "Texas Cotton Picker" (1912), photographs have been successfully used as a means of protecting the helpless; on the other hand, photographs can themselves become part and parcel of a cynical information society in cases where photographers come under suspicion of having failed to give assistance because they considered it more important to take a picture.

Robert Capa’s "The Falling Soldier" (1936) was the first photograph worldwide to show the moment of death; Todd Maisel’s picture "The Hand, 9/11" appeared despite an agreement among print media and television broadcasters not to show any corpses in connection with the attacks of 11 September. Thus, the exhibition reviews how photography has stretched and crossed the boundaries of society’s taboo zones up to the present day.
CONTROVERSIES. THE LAW, ETHICS AND PHOTOGRAPHY does not attempt to create any superficial provocation, but of course many of the pictures will also draw attention to restrictions on the freedom of art that are currently the subject of discussion. In the overall context and in order to understand this documentary project, these are just as indispensable as the historical subjects whose provocation potential is often barely recognisable today.

CONTROVERSIES. THE LAW, ETHICS AND PHOTOGRAPHY spotlights the interface between the law and art, beginning with the first photograph (Napoléon Sarony’s "Portrait of Oscar Wilde"of 1882) to achieve legal recognition as a work of art. A highly significant aspect of the exhibition is its focus on legal disputes over photographs, for example disputes dealing with issues of personality rights or intellectual property rights.

The exhibition differs fundamentally from presentations that use a strategy of provocation to pursue an artistic or educational objective of their own. Here, controversial content is shown in an informative documentary context. The beholders are not expected to deal with the disturbing subjects on their own; they are given information about backgrounds and contexts and invited to examine and reflect upon their own attitudes with a certain degree of critical detachment.

This presentation of the exhibition at KUNST HAUS WIEN is the first in the German-speaking region. It was developed by the Musée de l'Elysée Lausanne and curated by Daniel Girardin, Senior Curator of the Musée de l’Elysée and Christian Pirker, Attorney at Law in Geneva.
In Vienna the exhibition CONTROVERSIES. THE LAW, ETHICS AND PHOTOGRAPHY is being supervised by Curator Andreas Hirsch. It has been extended by adding several famous photographs that are exemplary of the thematic focus as it relates to Austria, thereby illustrating the relevant discourse in Austria in an international context.

Tags: Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray