A Photographic Survey of American Groups

E.J. (Edward J.) Kelty/Century—Courtesy W.M. Hunt Collection
E.J. (Edward J.) Kelty/Century—Courtesy W.M. Hunt Collection
“Hunt’s Three Ring, Circus”, 1921, “Northport, LI, NY June 26th”, “Photo by “Century 74 W. 47th St. NYC

Collector W.M. Hunt likes to catch people off guard. His curatorial style and his extensive collection of photographs borders on eccentric, but his unique approach to arranging and organizing exhibitions has the power to breath new life into ofter overlooked images.

This year, Hunt has brought a portion of his personal collection to Les Rencontres d’Arles, the annual French photography festival that draws contemporary artists, curators, and professional photographers from around the globe. Pulling from a vast archive of what might typically be called ‘vernacular’ photography, ‘Foule’ (French for ‘crowd’) is a photographic survey of American groups before 1950. From fraternal orders to baseball teams to ladies dance troupes, Hunt transforms these otherwise ordinary images into a dense and gleefully disorienting show, an aesthetic he strives for every time he hangs a series of photos on a wall.

“It’s an impatience with ordinariness,” Hunt says of his curatorial sensibility. “I love photography, and I have strong feelings about how much fun it is, and how much fun it should be. I want you to walk out of one of my shows with a grin on your face.”

Hunt showed a small selection from his ‘groups’ collection in 2011 at the Houston Center of Photography. At 150 photos, his goal was to create an immersive experience, one that he is sure to achieve at Arles this year with a show that includes over 200 images.

“The conceit was that when you walked into the room you walked into more photos that you could possibly handle,” he tells TIME.

The physical abundance of photos is only the first level of Hunt’s curatorial strategy at Arles this year, and one that, given the masses of anonymous people in obscure locations strewn across multiple rooms and framed in various ways, forces viewers into a completely a-typical viewing experience. You cannot casually stroll through this exhibition, he says, because it is both overwhelming and inviting, and warrants a different kind of visual investigation.

“You have to consider these photos differently, because they were clearly made as documents, which is not how most photos are made now,” he says, adding that the technical prowess required to capture dozens, if not hundreds of people on camera before 1950, is a feat worthy of admiration.

For Hunt, these images, stacked with information but revealing close to nothing about the people they depict or those behind the camera, should be valued for their mystery, not as a puzzle to be solved or a series of faces to identify. Groups, by definition, are not about individuals, and neither is Hunt’s exhibition at Arles.

W.M. Hunt is a curator, collector, editor and author based in New York.

Les Rencontres d’Arles festival takes place in Arles, France until September 21, 2014.

Krystal Grow is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @kgreyscale

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