NEW YORK — Have you ever played the party game telephone? “A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play,” which runs at the Morgan Library & Museum through May 18, is like a visual version of the game, only in reverse.
Telephone requires multiple players. One person whispers a message to another. That second person whispers it to a third, and so the game goes until the final player says out loud the message as he or she heard it. Inevitably, this message differs from the one originally whispered. Although the focus is on the original message, it’s the alterations that make the game amusing.
With “A Collective Invention” the whispering, so to speak, takes place between conceptually linked images rather than socially linked people, and the linkages/alterations are what matter. Nearly all of the 86 items are photographs. It’s fitting that there are a few ringers, since visual eclecticism is no less central to the show than playfulness is — and this is a very playful show.
Here’s an example of how the linking works. A forest landscape Robert Adams took in 2011, presumably in the Pacific Northwest, hangs next to an 1860s photograph of a very different-looking forest outside Darjeeling, India. That’s easy enough: into the woods (maestro, cue the Sondheim). On the other side of the Darjeeling forest is an Edward S. Curtis photograph of a Paiute Indian. Is the connection the pun on “Indian”? Could be, but the official one (labels beneath each image explain the linkage) is that both images include a person looking over his shoulder.
The connection need not be visual — or even in good taste. A police crime scene photograph from the 1910s shows a murder victim. Next to it is a snapshot from the 1980s in which only a whitened silhouette remains of one of the figures in the scene. The connection: Both contain someone who’s been “rubbed out” (maestro, cue the rim shot).
As the presence of Adams and Curtis indicates, there are famous photographers here. Julia Margaret Cameron, Larry Sultan, Frederick H. Evans are other examples. The Evans photograph is a platinum print of surpassing beauty, “Kelmscott Manor: In the Attics,” a far cry from that crime scene picture, which was taken by Anonymous, the most famous photographer of all — certainly, the most prolific. He (or she) is very well represented in “A Collective Imagination.”
There are also some famous faces, belonging to Sophia Loren, Theodore Roosevelt, and William S. Burroughs, among others. Far more often the people are unknown. That’s as it should be. The real star of the show is photography itself, with its wild variousness and unpredictability.
The “collective” part of “Collective Invention” is twofold. The more immediate collectivity is the threeway collaboration among curators, viewers, and images. The show really is a group effort in that respect. The less obvious, but even more important, is the collectivity of the medium itself. Photography encompasses — is a vehicle for — art, commerce, documentation, science, prurience, mindless distraction, personal history, and much else besides.
There are many marvelous images here you wouldn’t expect to see in a museum show: a movie still of Montgomery Clift (as Sigmund Freud, no less) rather goofily staring out from behind his hand; a news photo of Lenny Bruce testifying in court that still has grease-pencil crop marks and air-brushing on it; an advertising display of hard candies that look so luscious it could be the world’s first lickable color-sample chart; and on and on. What’s even more marvelous than the images is that seen in this context, they all make quite happy sense (maestro, don’t cue the cacophony). These photographs at play are every parent’s dream. They play well with others.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.