Ask a Curator: Framing Contemporary Photography

July 20, 2009

Doug Wichert Asks:

I’m a photographer who trained as a printmaker but for the last twenty-five years I’ve been a freak about framing artwork. The thing bugging me is my observation that “modern” framing emerges just in time for Pop and that means it dies on its feet and we’re left to argue what is next. Memphis was substituting bad taste for new taste. What do you think you see that could be called a contemporary style of framing (or not framing) photography that seems to best exemplify the post-modern sensibility? I’d like to find it before I die. To repeat, do you see a trend in the framing of artwork that seems to present the work in the spirit/sensibility of this time?

Dear Doug,

I share your fascination and ongoing questioning of what constitutes a “neutral” or up-to-date framing style for photography. I think that the style and emphasis shifts over time. In the mid 1990s, you often saw contemporary photographs dry mounted onto to a smooth sheet of aluminum, and then, unframed, held by a cleat onto a gallery wall. To use that technique now seems to directly speak of the production values and the ethos of photographic art practice of over ten years ago. A brushed metal frame speaks of the 1960s, a stained wood, decoratively moulded frame refers to the late 19th century conventions of framing virtuoso photographs. About five years ago, we were seeing a lot of photographs front mounted with Plexi, which responded to this process that is famously used by some of the most high profile photographers such as Andreas Gursky, typically working with large and spectacular print sizes. I am not a great fan of this process because it doesn’t actually protect the photographic print (a piece of Plexi is easily scratched, Plexi isn’t exactly a durable material) and I think it somewhat shouts “I am art” and hides the substance (or lack of) the work under the highly seductive production values of face mounting. Today, well, I like to think that we are in a different place. As the market for photographs exits a boom moment when being big, flashy and colorful meant there was a chance that it would be collected, as our sense of the resonance of the (analog) history of photography shifts in this (digital) age, I think that the possibilities of framing photography are much more diverse. Doug, I think you can safely decide what a photograph or body of work really needs its frame to do—how can it complete the meaning of the work? You can reference an earlier period of photography by your choice of your frame, you can emphasize the organic or inorganic forms of your photographs by your choice of wood over metal frames. I don’t think that there is a particular type of frame that exemplifies the moment, there are so many options open to you and it really depends on what you want the frame to say.

Charlotte Cotton