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
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
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
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