ICP Collection at Mana Contemporary

By Micaela Walker

I have been going to ICP, the International Center of Photography, since I was a teenager in the 1990’s.  A friend was taking black and white photography classes there and I would sneak in with her to use their darkrooms, which were housed the basement of the Willard D. Straight house on the upper east side of Manhattan.  I was excited to see their new collection facility at Mana Contemporary, where they moved to in 2015.

I met with Claarkje Van Dijk, the Assistant curator of collections, who graciously walked me through the facility and answered my litany of questions (although this was an observation, I couldn’t help my curiosity).  She detailed the history of how the collection ended up at Mana Contemporary, a behemoth 19th century former tobacco factory in Jersey City.

Entrance of Mana Contemporary

Founded in 1974 by photographer Cornell Capa as the Foundation for Concerned Photography, ICP’s mission is to promote photography as an instrument of social change, primarily through documentary photography.  The image collection started as a way to archive and house Cornell’s work as well as his late brother Robert Capa’s canon of images, which cover some of the most significant documentation of war in the 20th century, including his iconic D Day images.  Notably, ICP does not like to use the word “photojournalism”, perhaps because they do not see their collection as “neutral”.  Their selection “Images of Social Change” exemplifies ICP’s depictions of the brutality of war, racism, and poverty. Over the next two decades ICP grew to encompass a school, museum and library that also pursue photography as an instrument of progress.

"American troops landing on Omaha Beach, D-Day, Normandy, France" by Robert Capa © Cornell Capa

“American troops landing on Omaha Beach, D-Day, Normandy, France” by Robert Capa
© Cornell Capa

From 2000 until 2015 all of ICPs departments were housed together in several midtown buildings, in part thanks to a sweetheart deal of $1 in rent per year courtesy of the Durst Realty corporation (yes that Durst family).  During this time the archive grew exponentially to nearly 200,000, items from around the world spanning the nearly 200 year history of photography. They have a daguerrotype from the 1840s through to work that was produced this year.  This includes images in various formats – negatives, contact sheets, prints, magazines, and framed work encompasses every style and genre of photography. One thing I found extremely interesting is that ICP wouldn’t consider digital work that did not have a physical form until 2009 or 2010.  They have only really begun collecting “solely digital” work in earnest in the last two years.

Unidentified photographer and subject C 1842-3 Purchase, with funds provided by Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz, 2007

Unidentified photographer and subjects
circa 1842-3. Purchase, with funds provided by Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz, 2007

With the expansion of the collection arose the inevitable space issue of all collections. The cost of keeping the archives in Manhattan made little sense, so when the museum was relocated to the Bowery (near the New Museum), the collection moved to Mana. It was chosen because of it’s considerable size and accessibility to Manhattan by the PATH train.  They are in good company at Mana; other tenants include Magnum, the storied photo agency founded by Herni Cartier-Bresson – Magnum and ICP share copyright requests on the Capa brothers’ images, and on the famed street photographer Weegee’s images – and The NY Historical Society.

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The space is on the 6th floor of the building, which can only be reached by a single, imposing freight-style elevator that creeps along nervously.  The ICP office, however, has the modern open-air-meets-brick-wall style of a SOHO loft.  The collection is housed in an enormous windowless room with glass on one side overlooking a conference room and offices. The entire room is filled with row after row of industrial racks that nearly reach the ceiling.  The print collection is mostly stored flat in traditional gray and beige archival boxes stacked neatly on shelves and arranged mostly by last name of photographer. Larger framed images are stored vertically in bays at the back. As with most archives, cataloging of the material is in a perpetual state of updating and revision.

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Rows of racks of boxes or photos

Rows of racks of boxes of photos

The process of digitizing the entire archive is also ongoing.  They have a digital archivist whose sole job is scanning the collection and entering it in the database in basic form.  Additional details and keywords are added later by other staff and interns. They use The Museum System as their management software and currently they have over 90,000 images digitized in hi res, stored on remote servers, and available to the public in low res on their website for educational purposes. Considering the caliber of photographers they represent and the iconic nature of many of the images it is remarkable to me that they have un-watermarked images online, even in low resolution.  When I mentioned this to Claartje she said ICPs mission of public education  and access pushed them to make the collection digitally accessible at the risk of losing complete control.

I was curious how ICP decided, in this age of unlimited imagery, what to add to its collection moving forward.  Three times a year the curatorial staff have acquisition meetings where they propose works to a secret committee.  While the collection’s holdings were focused primarily on documentary photography from the 1940’s – 1970’s for many years it gradually expanded to include street photography, fashion, fine art, color, abstract works, and even some illustration. The chief curator, Brian Wallis, has made a point of looking to fill niches that are not collected elsewhere – a recent acquisition is a series of Soviet picture magazines.

Another is a collection of more than two thousand vernacular photography items, including postcards, cartes-de-visites, and portraits collected by Daniel Cowin depicting African American life from 1880 through the 1930. Nearly all of the subjects’ identities are unknown in a collection like this and were more than likely taken without any consideration of an afterlife in a museum collection.

Unidentified photographer and subjects. Gift of Daniel Cowin, 1990

Unidentified photographer and subjects. Gift of Daniel Cowin, 1990

This is an issue of particular complicating ethics in photography.  As in the discussion of consent in “The Ethics of Fieldwork” regarding research subjects, a willing participant is entrusting a piece of their identity with the photographer. An unwilling (or unaware) subject is entirely without control so the value of what the person depicts or represents must be weighed with consideration to any violation of privacy or personhood. Whomever possesses the photograph will make decisions with consequences for the subjects of that image, and there is often no clear answer as to what is “more ethical” in documentary photography . This photograph by Nick Ut, included in ICPs database, exemplifies to me the tension between exposing history and exposing individual people.

Children fleeing South Vietnamese napalm strike near Trang Bang, Vietnam. By Nick Ut. @The Life Magazine Collection, 2005

“Children fleeing South Vietnamese napalm strike near Trang Bang, Vietnam” By Nick Ut. The Life Magazine Collection, 2005

ICP seems to be acutely aware of the ethical responsibility their collection entails and indeed sees the context in which it represents their images as crucial to remaining mindful of the images subjects. In a time of infinite imagery, a curated perspective such as this seems all the more needed.

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