To present photography in an exhibition space is certainly not a simple and easy task. It involves decisions made by the curator, wishes and hopes by the artist, the availability of space and has to meet the viewer’s expectations. But the biggest problems may arise when the curator, the exhibition space and the artist are not the only people involved in the decision-making. This becomes obvious in many photographic exhibitions including two that we recently visited Vanity-Fashion/Photography from the Collection F.C. Gundlach (Kunsthalle Wien until April 1, 2012) and Weegee Retrospective 1932-1960, Auer Ory Photo Collection (Westlicht Wien, closed February 12, 2012).

F.C. Gundlach, Brigitte Bauer, Op Art Swimsuit, 1966

F.C. Gundlach, Brigitte Bauer, Op Art Swimsuit, 1966

Presented are photographs from two concise and extensive collections. The first, from the F.C. Gundlach Collection,  presents everything in fashion photography from Horst P. Horst to Cecil Beaton, from Peter Lindbergh to Lillian Bassmann. That’s actually where the problems start. Of course the collection is amazing and huge, but detailed information is lost in the vastness and the lack of a clear theme to follow. Also the decision – not by the curator but forced by the collector – to hang everything in chronological order is problematic. There is hardly a chance for the viewer to discover commonalities and more general themes. Viewing the exhibition becomes a race through time without a minute to stop. Another problem is the current trend for the hanging of the actual images. There seems to be a newly written rule that photographs should hang below eye level. While this could make sense for some work, for many it doesn’t and anyone above a height of 1.75m will get back problems. This might not be as disturbing as it may sound, if the collector hadn’t had a rather unfortunate way of breaking his own rule by simply hanging pictures above this line in some places. This of course could give images a special place within the selection but a specific choice of work and exhibition design would had to have been made from the outset. To see a brilliant print of Richard Avedon’s Dovima and the Elephants is one thing, to being barely be able to see it because it is hanging some 2.5 to 3 metres above the ground, framed behind disturbingly reflecting glass and directly below strong studio lights is another.

The other exhibition – a retrospective of Weegee’s New York work – is an equally vast and impressive collection. 250 images are distributed in two rows around the gallery. This sheer number of works unfortunately does Weegee and his now iconic images no favours. Many important and simply great images “drown” amidst others that can hardly be described as relevant. It could be argued that Weegee was interested in producing many images, the way a restless photographer does, but as a viewer it certainly would have helped to be able to concentrate on a single image rather than being overwhelmed. Space to breath is at least as important for photography as for any other kind of art.

WEEGEE, In The Paddy Wagon

WEEGEE, In The Paddy Wagon, around 1944

Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that both exhibitions present photography in its top-form. Had the overwhelming curatorial decisions, apparently made by the collectors rather than the curators, been avoided, both exhibitions could have been top notch.