Making Light: Humor in Photography

By Joel Smith

Most graphic humor, from the first off-color cave-painting to medieval broadsides to last Sunday’s funny papers, achieves its ends by means of creative distortion. By provoc- atively contradicting the facts, or by exaggerating them to an outrageous extreme, artists have sought to confront viewers with truths that transcend the evidence of the eyes. (The king is a beast! Liquor is poison!) Making its debut in 1839, the camera immediately impressed its public as a powerful instrument of science but a limited aid to art, because it was literally unable to deviate from any fact, however banal, that was placed before the lens. It would turn out that photography was not doomed to the role of “straight-man” among the arts, but its obligatory allegiance to the literal did force would-be camera humorists to invent new kinds of pictorial humor. 

An upcoming exhibition at Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center explores the unique relationship between the camera and the comedic. In dozens of pictures spanning 150 years, Making Light: Wit and Humor in Photography (April 6–June 11) looks through photographers’ eyes as they delve into satire, punnery, the grotesque, and the plainly absurd. Drawn from the collections of the Art Center and several lenders, the exhibition covers a wide range of work, from gentle parlor theatrics to late-Victorian stereographs (the situation comedies of their day, all off-color anecdote and topical good humor); from spontaneous snapshots to elaborate studio scenes; and from the propagandistic photomontages of wartime to the amusingly trivial performance records of 1970s conceptual artists. The result is both a new history of a quintessentially modern visual medium, and a reassessment of how and why we find humor in the world – or how it finds us.


Athena Tacha, Ears, 1970-1975. Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center,
Purchase, Louise Woodruff Johnston '22 Fund.

Joel Smith is the Emily Hargroves Fisher ’57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and the author of the recently published Edward Steichen: The Early Years (Princeton University Press).