In Depth: The Itinerant Languages of Photography

Joan Fontcuberta (Catalan, born 1955), Googlegram: Niépce (and detail), 2005. Inkjet print from a digital file, exhibition copy, 120 x 160 cm. Courtesy of the artist. © Joan Fontcuberta


The Itinerant Languages of Photography begins with a simple axiom: that photography can never remain in a single place or time. Like postcards, photographs are moving signs that carry any number of open secrets. They travel from one forum to another—from the family album to the museum, from books into digitized forms—and with each recontextualization they redefine themselves and take on different and expanding meanings.

The project began in the fall of 2010 as an experimental three-year interdisciplinary program, sponsored by the Princeton Council for International Teaching and Research. Its aim was to initiate and develop new forms of international collaboration, across widely varied fields of expertise, that could bring together scholars, curators, photographers, and artists from Latin America, Europe, the United States, and potentially other areas of the world, all of whom are involved in international circuits of image production. Following on symposia held in Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City, the project culminates in the exhibition now on view and the catalogue that accompanies it. Through more than ninety works from public and private collections in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, and the United States, The Itinerant Languages of Photography explores the movement of photographs across different borders, offering a diverse and dynamic history of photography that draws new attention to the work of both well-known masters and emerging artists. 

Rurales under Carlos Rincón Gallardo’s Command Boarding Their Horses on Their Way to Aguascalientes, n.d. Inkjet print from a digital file, exhibition copy, 14.6 x 20.3 cm. Fondo Casasola, SINAFOFototeca Nacional del INAH (Inv. #6345). © CONACULTA-INAH-SINAFO-FN-MEXICOTaking our point of departure from Latin American and Catalonian archives, we sought to study the various means whereby photographs not only “speak” but also move across historical periods, national borders, and different media. In the context of an explosion of “world photography,” Latin America has been at the forefront of the development of new aesthetic paradigms in modern and contemporary photography. Across the Atlantic, Barcelona gave us access to Catalonian photographers with a long history of exchanges with Latin America and Europe. These different “sites” have helped us call attention to significant but often neglected histories of photography beyond the dominant European and American canon and, in particular, to the transnational dimension of image production at a time when photography is at the center of debates on the role of representation, authorship, and communication in global contemporary art and culture. 

The digital revolution has created an explosion in the production, circulation, and reception of photographic images. Despite the many ominous predictions of photography’s imminent and irreversible disappearance, we all have become homines photographici— obsessive archivists taking and storing hundreds and thousands of images, exchanging photographs with other equally frenzied, spontaneous archivists around the globe. From this perspective, the ubiquity and mass circulation of images that describe the present are the latest manifestation of an itinerant condition that has characterized photography from its beginnings. The first image the viewer sees on entering the galleries is Joan Fontcuberta’s Googlegram: Niépce, based on the earliest-known photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (ca. 1826). By processing the results of a Google image search for the words photo and foto through photomosaic software, Fontcuberta recreated Niépce’s photograph as a composite of ten thousand images from all over the world, what he calls “archive noise.” A meditation on the circulation and itinerancy of images, Fontcuberta’s Googlegram points to the potential for transformation inscribed within every photograph—from the very “first” photograph to all those produced today, made possible by innumerable and ever-changing technologies. Bringing together the past, present, and future of photography, the image sets the stage for the questions raised by the rest of the exhibition.

Marc Ferrez (Brazilian, 1843–1923), Araucárias, Paraná, ca. 1884 (printed later). Gelatin silver print, 29 x 39 cm. Gilberto Ferrez Collection, Instituto Moreira Salles Archive, BrazilThe first section, “Itinerant Photographs,” offers a glimpse into the global history of early photography by examining the circulation of images in Brazil in the second half of the nineteenth century. The works in this section, many of which have never been exhibited in the United States, are drawn from two important Brazilian collections: the Thereza Christina Maria Collection at the National Library of Brazil, which consists of more than twenty-one thousand images assembled by the Brazilian emperor Pedro II (1925–1891), and the Instituto Moreira Salles’s holdings of early Brazilian photographs. Included are works by the itinerant inventor and photographer Marc Ferrez, whose Brazilian landscapes circulated as postcards and helped define modern Brazil both inside and outside of the country.

The second section, “Itinerant Revolutions,” presents archival materials from Mexico’s Sistema Nacional de Fototecas and representative works by renowned international and Mexican modernist photographers. The notion of itinerancy appears here in two interrelated forms: first, in relation to the explosion of photographic desire ignited by the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), which produced a massive movement of images across the country and abroad; and, second, in relation to the development of a photographic revolution based on dialogues and exchanges between local photographers, such as Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo and their heirs, and an international artistic and political avant-garde of peripatetic photographers represented by Tina Modotti, Henri Cartier- Bresson, and Paul Strand. 

Elsa Medina (Mexican, born 1952), El migrante (The migrant), Cañon Zapata, Tijuana, Baja California, México, 1987 (printed 2011). Gelatin silver print, 21.2 x 32 cm. Museum purchase, David L. Meginnity, Class of 1958, Acquisition Fund (2012-97). © Elsa MedinaThe third section, “Itinerant Subjects,” reflects on the different ways in which photography approaches moving subjects. It draws materials from the Fundación Foto Colectania in Barcelona and for the first time introduces to the American public the work of the street photographer Joan Colom and features surrealistic cinematic photo-essays by the Mexican photojournalist Nacho López. Photographs by Eduardo Gil, Graciela Iturbide, Elsa Medina, Susan Meiselas, and Pedro Meyer depict various forms of political itinerancy and migration, and others stage the relation between walking and photographic modes of seeing, suggesting that ambulatory subjects represent the movement of photography itself.

“Itinerant Archives,” the last section of the exhibition, explores the ways in which photographs and photographic archives are duplicated and revitalized through quotation and recontextualization within a selection of works drawn mostly from Argentine and Brazilian experimental photographers. While artists such as Toni Catany and RES use quotation as a means of paying tribute to classic photography and literature, Rosângela Rennó, Esteban Pastorino Díaz, and Bruno Dubner offer conceptual meditations on the photographic condition by resurrecting older photographic technologies and processes, such as the analog camera, gum printing, and the photogram. Citation can also mobilize a recycled photograph’s dormant political meanings, as when, in 2004, Susan Meiselas returned to the sites where she had photographed events of the Nicaraguan revolution twenty-five years earlier and installed mural-size reproductions of her pictures. 

Whether as project, symposia, exhibition, or catalogue, The Itinerant Languages of Photography seeks to explore, embody, and enact photography’s essential itinerancy, which defines a medium that, as the German media theorist Walter Benjamin so often told us, has no other fixity than its own incessant transformation, its endless movement across space and time.

Eduardo Cadava
Professor, Department of English

Gabriela Nouzeilles
Professor and Chair, Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures



The Itinerant Languages of Photography
By Eduardo Cadava and Gabriela Nouzeilles
with contributions from Joan Fontcuberta,
Valeria González, Thomas Keenan,
Mauricio Lissovsky, and John Mraz

240 pages, 8 x 10 inches
135 color and 70 duotone illustrations
Retail $45, Friends members $40.50




The Itinerant Languages of Photography has been organized by the Princeton University Art Museum. This exhibition is supported, in part, by funds from the Council for International Teaching and Research, Princeton University, and by the Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Contemporary Art Fund. Additional support has been provided by the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs; by the Consulate General of Brazil in New York; by the David L. Meginnity, Class of 1958, Fund; and by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the Council of the Humanities, and the Program in Latin American Studies, Princeton University. Further support has been provided by Angelica and Neil Rudenstine, Class of 1956, and by the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum. The publication has been supported, in part, by the Barr Ferree Foundation Publication Fund, Princeton University, and by the Joseph L. Shulman Foundation Fund for Art Museum Publications.