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Inventing photography

Last modified: 2/23/2012 12:00:00 AM
Glimpsing beauty in a steel beam or puddle of water, modernist photographers looked at the world in a brand-new way. Their work allows us to see it that way, too, at the Currier Museum of Art's new exhibition, "A New Vision: Modernist Photography."

On display through May 13, the show includes 125 works and explores the growth of modern photography, its influence on modern art and the modernist movement, and what curator Kurt Sundstrom describes as "the reciprocal influences among all media that shaped the modernist visual vocabulary."

Paintings by Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, Childe Hassam and a lithograph by Pablo Picasso are strategically placed among the photographs in the exhibition to illustrate the common vision shared by modernists.

"The ideas were out there and they were influencing all media at the same time," Sundstrom said. "Photography was looking for its own voice at the time modernism was developing."

 A new definition of art


Photography was not accepted as art in its early days because it was machine-made. At first, photographers tried to imitate the artists of the time by manipulating the process to make photographs look like paintings.

In the early 1920s, though, not only photographers but also painters, sculptors and printmakers turned to representing things realistically, with form and composition becoming as important as subject matter. They found inspiration in both the natural world and the industrial world.

Photographer Edward Weston wrote in 1930 that artists are "not searching for unusual subject matter, but making the commonplace unusual."

"Photographers were finding incredible beauty in the most mundane and ordinary. It was an amazing moment in the history of art," Sundstrom said. "It's what the artist calls 'new vision'. You never saw an artist

hanging off the edge of the Eiffel Tower painting a picture. That's the advantage of the camera - you could disorient the viewer and find these incredible geometrics.

"The criticism of photography was that it could only capture what was in front of you. Photographers flipped that around and went to these places that no one had ever seen viewpoints from, and started finding in nature compositions that no one ever paid attention to, or no one ever thought was worthy of artistic attention. And instead of traditional landscapes, with broad horizons in the middle of the canvas, Brett Weston starts saying, 'What about just this group of leaves?' He found something beautiful in that, and they're extraordinary. This was never done before."

While some photographers like Weston observed the natural world in new ways, others focused on the industrial world. Margaret Bourke-White photographed industrial subjects from unusual and sometimes dangerous vantage points.

"Turbine, Niagara Falls Power Co." allows the viewer to see beauty in strong shapes and repetitive patterns, and celebrates of the power of American industry.

Boris Ignatovich's "Tramway Handles" focuses on a repetitive pattern of mechanical devices. Are they small? Are they large? It's not important. There is no context to distract the viewer from appreciating the pattern and form.

 Shadow and light


Most of the photographs in the exhibition are black and white. "Shadow plays a really important role in modernist photography - shadows from man-built structures or from trees or whatever. You get deep rich blacks and bright whites that you can't get in color photography," Sundstrom said.

Also, color was unstable in the early processes, and often faded. Now the chemistry is different, and museums are willing to spend money purchasing a color photograph, knowing that it will not deteriorate, he said.

Paul Strand's "Abstraction, Porch Shadows" depicts shadows cast by an unseen object onto an unidentified surface, leaving only pure light and shadow. It was taken in 1915.

"That's amazing for that early," Sundstrom said. "It's a landmark image that changed a lot of people's perceptions about what photography can do. It wasn't until 20 years later that photography started even being considered for acquisition in museums."

Shadow is also essential to Helmar Lerski's "Metamorphosis through Light #587." The subject's tightly framed face is not so much a photograph as a relief map of his face, reminiscent of a moonscape. One can imagine driving a tiny moon rover through the valleys, behind the shadows, and over the ridges of this magnificent image.

 What is it?


Photographers sometimes deliberately masked their subject matter to disorient the viewer. Only the title reveals the subject of the photograph. For example, Laszlo's "Fish Drying" was taken from an unusual angle so that the viewer would not see strings of fish but the pattern of light and dark. Karen Titel's "untitled (lumber)" is a raggedy checkerboard of light and shadow made by photographing the ends of a stack of lumber.

Bradford Washburn's "A Glacier Turns a Corner, Bend of the Shoup Glacier, Alaska" could be anything - concrete mixing, swirled sand or frosting in a bowl. All that matters is the pattern it makes and the image it evokes in the viewer.

"A lot of photographers would say it's not what it is, it's what else it is," Sundstrom said. "They allow the viewer to see something else - they distort or make the image so unrecognizable that in your mind's memory you can't figure out what it is or where it is.

Sometimes the viewer gets a little help, though. In "Window Cleaner, New York," Ruth Jacobi rotated an image that was taken looking straight up the wall of a building, at first a puzzling view of geometric patterns. A tiny figure in the corner, a window cleaner, re-orients the viewer.

In contrast, Walker Evan's "Bluestone Antique Shop, Woodstock, N.Y." makes no effort to disguise the tools hanging on a wall, but they are barely noticeable anyway. Their function is to create the strong shadows that form interesting shapes on the brilliantly sunlit surface.

One entire room of the exhibition is devoted to the Currier's impressive collection of works by Brett Weston, 35 of them donated by Christian Keesee, founder of the Brett Weston Archive. Weston uses variety of viewpoints: strong shadow ("Dune, Oceano"); extreme close-ups that can puzzle the viewer with their abstract images ("Kelp and Water"); close-ups to draw our attention to detail that might go unnoticed ("Grass and Lava, Hawaii"); and stunning vistas ("Mountains and Clouds"). While most of his work is of the natural world, he also ventures into the industrial with "Engine Detail" and "Fremont Bridge, Portland."

 Beyond the wall


The Currier does more than just display art. Leah Fox, director of public programs, said that education is a crucial part of the experience.

"Since the museum reopened from its extension in 2008, we've put much more of a focus on thinking about not just the content that we want to show visitors but the relationship between the art and the visitors and what type of experience we can provide," she said. "There's a move in the museum field, not just art museums, to make learning more interactive, still providing the labels and didactic information but providing a balance to gear towards visitors' different interests and giving them something to do to learn the content, not just look at it."

"Photography is such an accessible medium. Everyone who walks through the door has clicked a camera. We've all looked through a viewfinder and made our decisions about how we want to photograph whatever we're photographing. We're all starting with some level of prior knowledge. It's important to reinforce that," Fox said.

In the lounge area of the first room of the exhibit, visitors have the opportunity to experiment with creating a modernist composition. In the second, they can respond to works of art by writing in one of the books that pertain to specific photographs and learn about how they can participate in the "Photo Slam" competition, in which the only guideline is to look at the everyday world in a new way.

The Discovery Gallery provides hands-on activities for all ages related to special exhibitions. Currently, visitors can continue to experiment with composition by arranging various three-dimensional objects on colored backgrounds, and then photograph them with a digital camera.

The photographs are put on the museum's Flickr site and on digital frames in the Discovery Gallery, so visitors who come in next can see them.

"This is the main thing we hope visitors will take away from this exhibit," Fox said. "While these photographers have an exceptional eye for this, anyone walking around downtown Concord or taking a hike is passing by these beautiful moments of natural and manmade detail, and we can capture them, too."

For information, see currier.org. Information about the PhotoSlam competition is located under "Education & Programs/adultprograms.


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