Proof: A Pictorial on the Politics of Exclusion

PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet, on view at Cleveland Museum of Art, has been extended through November 29. Photo of the entrance to the exhibit by Vince Robinson.


The events of 2020 have been quite revealing when it comes to matters of race in America. There is a global consciousness of the tensions here, as the world virtually watched life escape Minnesotan George Floyd on May 29th. Corporate responses came moments later. New terms like “anti-racism” accompanied pledges to give greater thought to ways to acknowledge and address the dynamics of racial inequities and their impact on Black lives.

Many of these inequities are woven into the fabric of normalized acceptance to a point that little thought is given by many to how they manifest in our daily lives, or how they appear in the art that shapes our perception of reality.

Pat Sabatine’s Eighth Birthday Party, April 1977, printed later. Larry Fink (American, b. 1941). Gelatin silver print; 24.8 x 19.4 cm. © Larry Fink. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art


Pat Sabatine’s Eighth Birthday Party, April 1977, printed later. Larry Fink (American, b. 1947). Gelatin silver print; 36.8 x 37.8 cm. © Larry Fink. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Proof: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet is a current exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It magnificently displays the art of photography though the lens of a tool of the film trade. Proof sheets were created by placing multiple strips of film on a single sheet and printing the sheet to review, crop and edit pictures.

This show features work collected by Cleveland photographer Mark Schwartz and his wife, Bettina Katz. Nearly 200 objects in the exhibition were provided by a number of well known photographers such as Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Irvin Penn, Herb Ritts and others curated by Peter Galassi. Galassi is a former chief curator of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Among the images are iconic photos of Marilyn Monroe, Groucho Marx, Sean Connery and a plethora of celebrities, as well as everyday people and situations. Proof provides an education not only on the contact sheet, but the process and the outcome.

Sections of the exhibition illustrate different aspects of the craft. In Staged Spontaneity, for example, is Yvonne Halsman’s 1951 photograph of Salvador Dali and Phillippe Halsman preparing to shoot Voluptate Mors. The contact sheet follows the strategic placement of models to create the surrealistic effect.

Fashion + Glamour includes images of Kate Moss and Twiggy by photographers Albert Watson and Avedon. And there is a rare image of an African American woman in this exhibition: Jackie Joiner Kersee. There were a couple of other pieces, notably one by Flip Schulke of Muhammad Ali underwater. As well there are the images that greet you at the exhibition entrance, a barrage of frames in sepia tones that scream with several more images of “The Greatest”, leading you to an even more prominent depiction of 12 Hands and Trumpet of Miles Davis by Irving Penn.

12 Hands of Miles Davis and His Trumpet, New York, 1986, printed 1999. Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009). Gelatin silver print, selenium toned; 60.3 x 47.1 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift from the Collection of Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz. © The Irving Penn Foundation. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Outside of these and two or three others, here’s where the African American presence in the popular culture landscape–shaped by a group of carefully selected elite photographers–ends. The balance of the exhibitions celebrates celebrity and the multiple facets of life in America, from a face-filling bubble gum bubble to the assassinations of Lee Harvey Oswald and Robert. F. Kennedy.

Marilyn Monroe, 1952. Philippe Halsman (American, b. Russia [now Latvia], 1906–1979). Gelatin silver print, ferrotyped; 25.4 x 19.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift from the Collection of Mark Schwartz  Bettina Katz. © Halsman Archive. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Marilyn Monroe had a section of her own, as well as equal treatment provided for Sean Connery in his iconic Dr. No contact sheets.

But the omission of the Black experience from this meticulously farmed collection of imagery, from the perspective of a photographer and one who has lived the Black experience for over six decades, was particularly unsettling.

It was equally so for 9-year old Dylan Dotson who came to visit the museum from Atlanta, Georgia while her grandmother Cassandra Davis was in town for a hospital visit. When asked how she felt about what she was seeing she said, “It made me feel sad because there’s a lot of Caucasian people and a lot of Caucasian artwork, but there’s only a little Black people’s artwork.”

Dylan Dotson, Age 9. Photo by Vincent Robinson.

In reality, there were no African American photographers included in the collection. And the magazines and other publications these images appeared in probably had few, if any, African American photographers. This vastly informative exhibition brings to light the nuances and intricacies of the art of photography and its direct connection with documenting history and human life in this country. It was described by art and architecture critic Steven Litt as “a celebration of 20th [century] culture in the broadest sense.”

Undoubtedly, it is. It is even possible that there was no intentionality in the largely missing segment of this country’s population from the black and white imagery from the cream of the crop of photographers. But more troubling is the truth of historical omission. The exhibition is a reflection of a broader landscape of cultural aesthetics reflected and shaped by media, art and education. And there are political reasons for all three.

As we recalibrate our perspectives on matters of race, the time has arrived to be intentionally inclusive when it comes to the stories that are being told through art. It is no longer acceptable to exclude based on cultural biases, even if the omission is incidental rather than intentional.

If a nine-year old can feel what she felt when she walked into a museum gallery filed with images that leave her with a sense of heartbreak, imagine what it would look like if the opposite were true.

The time for that change has come.


Proof: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet
From the collection of Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz
Extended through November 29, 2020

Cleveland Museum of Art
11150 East Boulevard
Cleveland, Ohio 44106

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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