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Aristocracy of Talent for an Egalitarian Art

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 6, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

From the daguerreotype to the cellphone snapshot, the history of photography has unfolded as a series of miracles, each of which has profoundly altered our understanding of the time-space continuum. As the innovations become familiar, the photographs become miracles in another way, as connections to a past we've never seen.

"Framing a Century: Master Photographers, 1840-1940," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, manages to operate in the gap between both kinds of miracles, innovative and talismanic. It presents the history of a medium as well as history itself.

This exhibition appropriates a model usually reserved for painters, old or modern masters. Organized by Malcolm Daniels, the curator in charge of the Met's photography department, "Framing a Century" recounts the medium's 100 years with a succinct cavalcade of big names, substantial bodies of work and significant historical impact.

The show singles out 13 photographers, representing each with 10 to 16 mostly stunning images. It begins with the innovations of the British gentleman William Henry Fox Talbot, and concludes with the homespun classicism of the American Walker Evans, the studio experiments of Man Ray and, finally, the breathtaking moments captured by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassai, geniuses of the street. In between are the landscapes of Roger Fenton, Gustave Le Gray and Carleton E. Watkins; portraits by Nadar and Julia Margaret Cameron; and views of 19th- and early-20th-century Paris and France by Charles Marville, Édouard Baldus and Eugène Atget.

If this sounds exclusive, it is. Photography, developed by a combination of artists, scientists, businessmen and hobbyists in Britain and France, starting in the late 1830s and early '40s, has an unusually populous and egalitarian beginning that is a fitting prelude to the images that deluge us today.

You may want to quibble about some absent masters. Where are Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and August Sander, for example? But this show has a second mission, which is to celebrate the 2005 acquisition of the glorious Gilman Collection of 8,500 photographs. Originally intended as a gift to the museum, it was partly given and partly purchased. More than half the images in this exhibition are from the collection; they demonstrate how well it dovetails with the photographs the museum already owns.

Trimming photography's narrative to 13 overachievers has its merits. The new technology galvanized the artists seen here — 12 men and 1 woman — to exploit its possibilities in terms of their own visions and own purposes. All used the camera to find bigness in themselves, in the new medium and, above all, in the world.

Arranged in a generally chronological manner, the show — like photography itself — proceeds from stillness to motion, from landscape and ruin to city, from people frozen in studio poses to people on the move. The camera's first great subjects were nature and architecture, which were ubiquitous, interesting and relatively motionless, important in the early years when cameras were heavy, and the slice of time required to make an image was at its thickest.

The earliest image in the show is a facsimile of Fox Talbot's primitive "photogenic drawing," or photogram, from around 1835, of a frail sprig of fern barely visible on a field of slate-gray light-sensitive paper. (The original cannot be shown because any exposure to light would destroy it.) The remaining 15 Fox Talbot images — landscapes, figure groups and his famous Dutch Masterish "Open Door" — show him pushing the medium from rudimentary to sophisticated in a few short years. His final image, from 1858, is a photogravure of dandelion seeds, fluff and all.

Mr. Daniels has arranged the show in a kind of pyramid of conversations conducted among the show's galleries, its artists and their individual works. His selections strive to show each photographer's range. Fenton, for example, veers from Victorian to protomodern. He sentimentally places a kneeling, praying woman at the center of his image of the ruin of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, yet his images of the old Kremlin or a railroad siding in Balaklava in the Crimea anoint him as perhaps the world's first photojournalist. The two sides of his sensibility meet in an image of the interior of Salisbury Cathedral dimly illuminated by shafts of daylight.

In the first gallery the peripatetic Fenton is joined by the more focused Le Gray, who concentrates mostly on the trees of the Forest of Fontainebleau and on tossed seas and skies, and Watkins, who had eyes only for the American West in its rugged, untrammeled glory. National topographies and sensibilities are contrasted here.

An image of a reclining woman by Fenton, dressed to the nines in exotic Middle Eastern garb, hangs next to one of a woman, completely nude, by Le Gray. British mores vs. French? Maybe. That both subjects seem at pains to avoid looking at the camera clarifies why the full-frontal stare of Manet's painted nude, "Olympia," from 1863, was so deeply shocking.

In the second gallery Nadar's often stark, unforgiving portraits of Parisian men about town face the more idealized and mostly female subjects of Julia Margaret Cameron; they tend to be pale beauties, too passive and too contemporary for comfort. This idealization reaches its height in her photo illustrations for Tennyson's " 'Idylls of the King,' and Other Poems"; the example here is a well-acted costume-drama involving quite a bit of chain mail. And Nadar's portrait of Eugène Pelletan, a critic, seems like a precursor of a Hollywood portrait of a handsome, slightly dangerous leading man.

In the gallery devoted to the work of Baldus, Atget and the lesser-known Marville, the beauty of Paris, old, new and in transition, takes over. Marville captures old streets both before and during Baron Haussmann's redesign, as well as the relative calm and intimacy of a man lying on sun-dappled ground beneath a chestnut tree.

Outside the city Baldus records history-laden architecture and Lyon flooded, in addition to rugged coastlines that are commensurate with Watkins. Back in Paris, his head-on image of the Imperial Library at the Louvre reduces the Ancien Régime to a series of mesmerizing formal contrasts: smooth and textured, round and flat, shadowed and light, horizontal and vertical.

Atget is drawn to store windows and the shimmering ponds of Saint-Cloud and Versailles. His most surprising image, from 1924-5, shows three prostitutes in the doorway of a brothel on Rue Asselin in Paris. It might almost be by Cartier-Bresson.

In the last two galleries the images reflect modern developments. One was the hand-held camera, which made picture taking a kind of instinct or reflex, as evidenced by Walker Evans's subway photographs, Cartier-Bresson's amazing succession of "decisive moments" and Brassai's evanescent views of Paris at night. (At the Corvisard Métro stop Brassai catches a pillar's shadow that looks suspiciously like Alfred Hitchcock's famous profile.) The other was the conviction that photography was an experimental art, born of a machine, pursued in the studio and characterized by a silvery, even icy artifice.

This show unfortunately lacks a catalog, but Mr. Daniels's text labels provide capsule biographies and note technological developments and popular reaction. He points out for example that Fenton's photographs of the Kremlin were the first images the British public saw of Russia.

All the images in this show at one time or another were firsts, as information and as experience. It is the gift of this exhibition and its 13 masters that we are able to feel some of the shocks that their work initially delivered. And if not all of these efforts began as art, they certainly are that now.

By Roberta Smith
For The New York Times

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