installation view of a Vik Muniz art exhibition

Vik Muniz Exhibition: Album

[From The Gallery Insider Series]

This view is one of several rooms of photographs by Vik Muniz from his exhibition "Album," which took place at the Sikkema, Jenkins & Co. Gallery from April 10 - May 10, 2014. The gallery is located at 530 West 22nd Street in New York City.

At first glance, the images appear to be typical pictures that one might find in an old family photo album. Viewing these works from a distance, they appear to capture a single moment, but walking up close to the pieces reveals that they are constructed with hundreds if not thousands of smaller photographs and photographic details.

The gallery's press release describes the exhibition in this way:

The "Album" series utilizes found personal photographs, many treated in sepia tone, collected by Muniz over a number of years. The images composed are of familiar scenes that may be found in family photo albums - a portrait of a baby, a wedding, a school picture, or a vacation snapshot. These images reflect intimate yet universal narratives. With the proliferation of inexpensive cameras in the late 20th century, and by the ease and speed of digital documentation in more recent years, such images have become more common and less precious. "Album" questions the implications of these shifts in technology and image-making, and their impact on community, collective experience, and memory.


Essential Question #1: In this age of photo-sharing sites such as Instagram and Flickr, how many of you even have family photo albums, with actual printed photographs in binders or bound books? In what ways does your own family save images from special events so that you may share or revisit them? (Scroll down for our explanations, further discussion points, and answers to the various Essential Questions posed in this feature).

Let's start with a look at "First Birthday, Album," 2014, pictured below. I was unable to get the exact measurements of the overall piece, but the approximate size is around 5 x 8 feet. While there is a clear depiction of 7 kids standing around a table with a birthday cake on it, even at this distance one can see that there are countless smaller images integrated into the children's bodies, the image foreground, as well as the background.

Essential Question #2: What might be the artist's reason for mixing in so many smaller photographs into the bigger image? Scroll down to see a detail from this piece which will give you a better view at the smaller photographs embedded into this overall image.

First Birthday, Album, a photo collage by Vik Muniz

From a distance, several of the large faces of the seven kids appeared to be whole photographs, but we can see from this detail that even the faces are made up of multiple pieces of smaller images. Note the four small faces that make up the edge of the boy's hair along the right side of his forehead. Another interesting thing is the way that Muniz used a dark photograph of a boy wearing dark clothes to act as the necktie on the central figure.

detailed view of a Vik Muniz photographic collage

Essential Question #3: How would you describe the types of photographs that make up the overall image? Why do you think Muniz chose only photographs of people? What would be his purpose in selecting old black and white photographs?

Essential Question #4: Look at the picture below - considering that this detail shows numerous pictures of people, both large and small - how does Muniz differentiate between the foreground and the background?

detail of a photographic collage by artist Vik Muniz

We've spent most of our time discussing just one image out of the exhibition's total of 15 large-scale photographs, so while we can't go into such detail about all 15 images, we'll include two more images and details from the show so that you can get an idea of some of the other work. You can also visit the gallery's archived web page regarding this exhibition to see even more.

Below is "Classroom, Album," 2013. The girl in the detail, below right, can be found in the back row to the far left in the main image, below left.

photo collage by Vik Muniz showing students in a classroom

Unfortunately, I cannot locate the title of the image below left; the dog in the detail below right can be found in the "water" below the boy's oar.

photographic collage by artist Vik Muniz at his exhibition titled Album

Essential Question #5: We've referred to these art works as "photographs," yet you've seen that they're a collage of photographic images. So why aren't we calling them collages?

Essential Question #6: Let's think about Muniz's process in creating these images ... what do you think his process might be? (Scroll down for our explanations and answers to these Essential Questions, including further discussion points one can use in the classroom)



Explanations and Answers to the Essential Questions:

Essential Question #1: In this age of photo-sharing sites such as Instagram and Flickr, how many of you even have family photo albums, with actual printed photographs in bound books? The only answer, of course, comes from you - but it might be interesting to note in a classroom setting how many students' families have photo albums, as opposed to the idea of a "photo album" being something that a grandparent might have instead of the immediate family. Or one can push this even further: how many students or kids think of a photo album in the same way as a VCR tape or a record album - something that people had in the past, but not anymore?

Essential Question #2: What might be the artist's reason for mixing in so many smaller photographs into the bigger image?

Vik Muniz's art, over the years of his career, has always included a range of materials that are used in unexpected ways to create an overall image that needs to be investigated closer to see the original materials. In this case, he's using smaller photographic details (note that none of the smaller photographs are complete photos, but rather elements of photographs that have been cut out or isolated) to make the suggestion of a single "snapshot" from a photo album. As you can see in the examples of older works by Muniz below, he has used the following materials to make his images ... from left: chocolate syrup to re-create a famous photograph of Jackson Pollock painting in his studio; spaghetti and spaghetti sauce on a plate to create an image of Medusa; garbage from a dump to recreate Jacques-Louis David's painting "The Death of Marat."

three photographs by Vik Muniz

Essential Question #3: How would you describe the types of photographs that make up the overall image? The photographs are all of people, and for the most part they are all black and white photographs. Why do you think Muniz chose only photographs of people? If you look closely at the people in the smaller photographs, they are also apparently in situations that would suggest that they too were photographs from someone's photo album. So he's making a single photo album-type image with hundreds of photographs from photo albums. What would be his purpose in selecting old black and white photographs? The show is offering a nostaligic look back at the somewhat old-fashioned idea of photo albums, and by utilizing only vintage black and white photographs, Muniz lends extra visual weight to the idea that photo albums are old-fashioned.

Essential Question #4: Look at the picture below - considering that this detail shows numerous pictures of people, both large and small - how does Muniz differentiate between the foreground and the background?

You'll see that Muniz utilizes light-toned photographs for things like the white shirts and skin, and dark-toned pictures for the background. Bonus question: can you name another artist who utilizes light and dark colors to differentiate people from their backgrounds? How about Chuck Close? As you can see from the two examples of Chuck Close paintings below, flanking the center detail from another of Vik Muniz's "Album" pictures, the overall images are made up of composite shapes and colors, and both artists are utilizing light and dark colors to help define the image.

art by Chuck Close and Vik Muniz

Essential Question #5: We've referred to these art works as "photographs," yet you've seen that they're a collage of photographic images. So why aren't we calling them collages?

This is a very interesting point, in that when we were standing in front of these art works in the gallery, even moving up close to see the details, we were still under the impression that they were one-of-a-kind unique collages. It wasn't until we looked at the surface from an angle that we saw that it was completely smooth and the tactile aspects of the collage were not present. A quick look at the gallery's checklist confirmed that these are indeed photographs, with each piece being a single print from an edition of 5! So while Muniz obviously created an original one-of-a-kind collage, the "final" art work being presented and made available for sale through the gallery is a large-scale photograph! We don't know what happens to the original collage, but certainly the idea that the "art work" being presented is in truth a photograph of another art work is something that can create a whole different discussion on its own!

Essential Question #6: Let's think about Muniz's process in creating these images ... what do you think his process might be?

Unfortunately, we don't have a solid answer for this question, but let's think about the possibilities: does he just have a huge collection of photographs sorted into groups of dark and light images and then goes about creating each large piece by pulling a bunch of smaller photos from each group? Do you think he cuts out the individual detail-images before composing the big picture or while he's doing it? The amount of time and effort to put together such a large piece from so many smaller pieces must be extraordinary!

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