We’re so used to thinking of a photograph as a window onto the world that when we see a photo showing something partially blocked or hidden from view, our interest is piqued. Drawn from the permanent collection at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the exhibition “Something in the Way: A Brief History of Photography and Obstruction,” on view until January 1, is a charming look at photos that incorporate an element that might typically be considered an obstruction or a distraction, but somehow make the composition more intriguing. The exhibition encompasses both conceptual photographs and happy accidents. It’s not a show about photo bombing. It’s a celebration of the ingenuity of photographers who made the most of what they saw in front of their lens.
One of the earliest photos in the exhibition is an 1843 salted paper negative by William Fox Talbot, taken from a first floor window that gave a partially obstructed view of a Paris sidewalk and an alley. It makes a nice contrast with a photo of Paris rooftops taken in 1929 by André Kertész: The view is picturesque, except there’s a small hole in the windowpane, made by a bullet or a rock. “Something in the Way” also includes a 1981 photo by Judith Steiner in which a foot—whose? We’ll never know—is glimpsed jutting out from behind a concrete wall. In some of the images on display, as in Brett Weston’s 1968 photo “Building Façade Through Barbed Wire,” the distinction between foreground and background and subject and obstruction is obscured. We have seen Lionel Feininger’s portrait of a photojournalist so many times, we might have forgotten that it’s really less of a portrait than an image of a camera almost completely obscuring the man’s face.
The museum’s statement about the exhibition notes, “Every photograph is a negotiation between what exists in front of the camera and what the photographer is willing to include.” The works in the exhibition call our attention to how the photographer’s act of framing determines how much of the world we are allowed to glimpse. While digital technology has made it easier to mask or erase extraneous picture elements, many photographers have instead sought out occlusions and obstructions, highlighting the limitations of the medium. The curators note, “Photographers have begun exploring how the photograph, or even the act of photographing, is itself an obstruction to the real world.” —Holly Stuart Hughes