Review of the exhibition catalog The Order of Things: Photography from the Walther Collection, edited by Brian Wallis (Göttingen: Steidl, 2015)
The paucity of serious attention to The Order of Things is curious, given the book’s value as an independent source of reference for photography scholars and practitioners apart from the concomitant exhibition. It is equally regrettable that the publication has largely been overlooked by the readers of Michel Foucault, despite the fact that the book was named after the French thinker’s influential study originally published as Les Mots et les Choses (1966). Foucault’s preface to his book is reprinted in the catalogue, alongside other new and old essays, including Walter Benjamin’s ‘A Little History of Photography’ (1931), Allan Sekula’s ‘The Body and the Archive’ (1986), George Baker’s ‘August Sander, Degeneration, and the Decay of the Portrait’ (1996), and Geoffrey Batchen’s ‘Ordering Things’ (2015). The book’s importance has been growing ever since it was first published in 2015, in accordance with the reputation of the Walther Collection as one of the world’s most significant collections of historical and contemporary photographs, especially those made in Africa and China. Not only does The Order of Things shed light on the genesis of the collection by providing an interview with Walther, but the book’s theme also attests to the collector’s proclivity for acquiring an entire set or batch of photographs that may or may not have been conceived as a series.
Throughout the modern era, photography has been enlisted to classify the world and its people. Driven by a belief in the scientific objectivity of photographic evidence, the systems utilized to classify photographs have shaped modern visual culture. Accompanying the exhibition The Order of Things: Photography from The Walther Collection, this book investigates the production and uses of serial portraiture, vernacular imagery, architectural surveys and time-based performance in photography from the 1880s to the present, bringing together works by artists from Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. Setting early modernist photographers Karl Blossfeldt and August Sander in dialogue with contemporary artists such as Ai Weiwei, Nobuyoshi Araki, Richard Avedon, Zanele Muholi, Stephen Shore and Zhang Huan, The Order of Things illustrates how typological methods in photography have developed globally.