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Rethinking the Photographic Image: The Best of Photography from the George Eastman House Collection

April 22 - June 25, 2006

 

This spring the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) is presenting Rethinking the Photographic Image: The Best of Photography from the George Eastman House Collection, a fresh and expansive look at the rich history of the medium that has shaped the modern era. The product of a new partnership between UMMA and George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, the exhibition draws upon the deep holdings and resources of George Eastman House, one of the world's most comprehensive collections of photography and film. On view from April 22 through June 25, 2006 this ambitious undertaking -- installed in galleries on all three floors of the Museum -- is the final exhibition in the Museum's current facility, Alumni Memorial Hall, before the institution undertakes construction on its long-awaited expansion and restoration project. On June 24, the Museum opens its temporary exhibition space, to be called UMMA Off/Site, at 1301 South University in Ann Arbor, just blocks from its current landmark location.

Included among the more than 250 images in the exhibition are photographic gems such as Matthew Brady's portrait of Abraham Lincoln, iconic images by Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, Manuel Alvarez-Bravo, Lewis Hine, and Alfred Stieglitz; and works by living artists such as Barbara Kruger, Nicholas Nixon, Lorna Simpson, and Lucas Samaras. Rounding out this spectacular focus on photography will be a focused examination of the groundbreaking work of young British photographer Andy Lock. (right: Lewis Wickes Hine (American, 1874-1940). Power House Mechanic, 1920, Gelatin silver print. Credit: Courtesy George Eastman House)

Roughly chronological, the exhibition is divided into four thematic sections that trace the stylistic and cultural transitions embodied in photographic practice over time: "Beginnings," when technologies and conventions for the nascent medium were formed; "The Shaping Eye," which reflects the self-conscious visions of the Pictorialist and Modernist traditions; "Active Witness," which focuses on the often provocative documentary, journalistic, and activist imagery created in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s; and "Contemporary Visions," in which present-day photographers pursue a diversity of strategies in ways that parallel the medium's early years, including a return to antiquarian printing techniques even as artists exploit the possibilities of the digital age. Each section is punctuated by focused explorations that question artistic intent or challenge how photographs work as images-even as they ask visitors to think outside the framework of chronology.

Rethinking the Photographic Image: The Best of Photography from the George Eastman House Collection was organized by George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, New York, in affiliation with the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

This exhibition is made possible in part by National City Bank, Borders Group, Dykema, the Office of the President of the University of Michigan, Ernestine and Herbert Ruben, the Eugene and Emily Grant Family Foundation, Rudolf Arnheim, Michigan Radio, The Ann Arbor News, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Main Street Area Association, the Doris Sloan Memorial Fund and the Friends of the Museum of Art.

 

Following are wall panel texts from the exhibition which the museum has generously provided to further inform Resource Library's readers.

Many observers have characterized photography -- the process of producing images by the action of light on a chemically sensitized surface -- as the defining artistic medium of the twentieth century. Literally "drawing with light" from the Greek words photos (light) and graphos (drawing), photography and our understanding of its meaning have been profoundly challenged in recent years with the advent of digital image making. The digital revolution has increased our awareness of the degree to which photographic images can be the product of extensive manipulation. Yet such manipulation can be found in photography from its origins in the nineteenth century, challenging many of our unreflected understandings of photography as a more directly (and honestly) observed art form than media such as painting and sculpture.

While the origins of photography arguably go back many centuries, its modern origins can be found in the 1830s, when at least four people working independently succeeded in making photographs. In 1839 Frenchman Louis Daguerre's invention, the daguerreotype -- producing an image on a metal plate -- was made public, yet it was Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot's 1840 invention, the calotype -- producing a negative picture on paper -- which caught on. The 150th anniversary of these inventions produced numerous survey histories of the medium. With the passage of another fifteen years and the advent of the digital revolution, the histories written by photographic historians already demand to be re-investigated in a time in which the medium is experiencing a diversity perhaps unseen since the great period of experimentation in the nineteenth century.

Rethinking the Photographic Image proposes one path of investigation into the history of the medium drawn from a single collection, that of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, the world's oldest photography museum. This exhibition reflects the particular character of the collection originally assembled by George Eastman, who founded the company that became Eastman Kodak and popularized photography by bringing the "Brownie" box camera into the hands of amateurs the world over. Presented largely chronologically, the exhibition's structure focuses attention on the changing motivations and strategies of photographers across more than 160 years -- from a time of technical and formal experimentation (Beginnings), through one in which image makers inserted themselves more knowingly into the process of making images (The Shaping Eye), to a period of increasing interest in using the camera to record and shape history (Active Witness), and then one of renewed experimentation in contemporary photography (Contemporary Visions). Throughout the exhibition run a sequence of juxtapositions, under the rubric In Focus, that question key strategies in the making of photographic images. These juxtapositions aim to challenge our understandings of photography and to remind us that the act of looking at photographs is based on the moment of looking-on our experience as viewers looking at images in 2006.

George Eastman and the museum bearing his name have played important roles in the history of photography, including its continuing evolution, as new photographers and new photographs enter the "canon" of memorable and influential images. The George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film combines the world's leading collection of photography and film with the Colonial Revival mansion and gardens that George Eastman called home from 1905 to his death in 1932. The Museum is a National Historic Landmark (opened to the public in 1949) that remains a leader in photograph conservation and film preservation, educating archivists and conservators from around the world.

Rethinking the Photographic Image marks the launch of an ongoing partnership between the George Eastman House and the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA). It also marks an important moment in UMMA's history, as the final exhibition before Alumni Memorial Hall closes for a long-awaited project of expansion and restoration. From June 25, UMMA will operate a temporary exhibition venue at 1301 South University, to be called UMMA Off/Site, where the history of photography, film, and video will be explored in a two-year sequence of compelling exhibitions.

 

Beginnings

The invention of photography was both a surprise and a long awaited development. Since antiquity, people knew that light coming through a hole in a wall cast a picture of the outside world on it. People also knew that silver would darken over time with exposure to light, and that this could be used intentionally. But to permanently capture a picture or to darken silver in seconds rather than months took a serious effort on the part of many, from scientists to aristocratic hobbyists. In 1839, Louis Daguerre, an entrepreneur and theatrical promoter, succeeded in fixing an image (that is, creating an enduring image) on a silver-coated metal plate. Within months of their invention in France, these unique, non-reproducible images, known as daguerreotypes, were being used around the world. In 1840, Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot announced the development of a photographic process using paper. In Talbot's process, a "negative" image, in which light and dark tones were reversed, was created and then used to print multiple positive images.

When Daguerre's process was introduced, a contemporary commentator itemized the professions that would benefit from the new discovery, a list that included draftsmen and painters, travelers, archaeologists, and naturalists. From the beginning, then, photography was seen to have many functions, and between 1839 and 1890 it was used for a diverse set of purposes as demonstrated by the photographs on view here. Photographers used the new medium for traditional artistic purposes such as portraiture, drawing on existing conventions to make portraits of kings, queens, presidents, and actors, as well as ordinary people. They explored the unique capabilities of the medium to stop time and thus to abet the study of natural phenomena, such as the structure of lightning. And photographers increasingly discovered and exploited the medium's reportorial value, witnessing key events of their time in ways that previous artistic media could do in only limited ways, such as documenting the events of war more or less instantaneously, as in the Crimean War --- the first conflict of such scale and import to be documented photographically -- and subsequently in the U.S. Civil War.

Photographic technologies and the applied purposes of the medium evolved together in photography's first half-century. Early advances made the taking of pictures dramatically easier -- cameras became smaller, printing could be done stably on paper -- and this in turn led to a rapid divergence in both formal approaches to the medium and the uses to which photography was put. Amateurs quickly got in the game, recording moments large and small to which they were witness, including the effects of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The aesthetic potential of photography was slower to become clear: it took several decades for creators and consumers to comprehend the range of possibilities available to them, as the photograph brought forward a seemingly infinite range of what could be achieved with light. It was a period of experimentation, with no single movement, school, or method dominating. The traditional genres (landscape, portraiture, the still life, and so on) were being addressed in styles ranging from the impressionistic to the hard-edged, with a range of practitioners increasingly mastering the rich tonal options of the medium. By the end of the nineteenth century, the medium reached a kind of first artistic maturity, dramatically impacting the way artists in other media looked at, thought about, and composed their images. Even though many observers and critics remained hard pressed to see photography as a legitimate fine art form, by the turn of the twentieth century photography had become firmly embedded in the mass market and had found its first full aesthetic expression.



The Shaping Eye

As the twentieth century dawned, photographers trained in the traditions of painting and early photographic practices challenged themselves to portray a changing world in new ways. Eugène Atget's unflinching documentation of a Paris in the throes of reinvention and the literary and painterly Pictorialist photographers in the United States suggest two ways in which turn-of-the-century photographers sought to portray the world. Each, in its way, looked largely to the past for its aesthetic models. Ultimately, the suffused imagery and poetic approach of artists such as Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Alvin Langdon Coburn -- Pictorialist photographers whose work aimed at the aesthetic of fine painting -- proved inadequate to contend with the new forms of skyscrapers and suspension bridges, the man-made expressions of the new century. In ways that might have been hard for Atget himself to predict, his unsentimental form of observation -- sustained across a long body of work that was initially substantially overlooked -- offered a way forward for artists searching for a fresh approach to the thrilling new stimuli of the twentieth century. This alternative applied direct observation to new subject matter to create a visual sensibility that we have come to define as Modernism.

Just as abstract painting and avant-garde movements such as Dadaism and Surrealism responded to the age with new impulses and new ideas, so in photography did artists working in Pictorialist and Modernist vocabularies share a commitment to a more active intervention in image making, what can be termed the shaping eye. Indeed, a number of artists worked in both vocabularies, moving from one that was essentially shaped by painting to one that sought a new language of expression more attuned to the industrial age. These included Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz and, perhaps most notably, Paul Strand. Other photographers such as Lewis Hine embraced the language of Modernism to document society's ills in an attempt to alleviate them, consciously creating images that could both inform and move the viewer. Each of these artists created images that could resonate with an ultimately iconic power, as if, in the words of critic Peter Schjeldahl, each picture were the first and last in the world.

The dynamism of the 1920s invigorated these artists, along with a younger generation for whom direct, seemingly unmediated photography was often the first choice. Industrial subjects, including large-scale public projects, offered new subject matter. Architecture was no longer anchored in the proportions and vocabularies of classical art; poured concrete and steel offered a spare aesthetic that was quickly seized upon by photographers. Alongside the move to abstraction in painting, many photographers also shrugged off traditional visual approaches in order to fracture and manipulate space, simultaneously putting aside the warm tonalities of traditional printing techniques such as photogravure, albumen, and platinum prints, to break new boundaries with solarization and photograms. Modernist photographers also brought new formalist approaches to the depiction of landscape, the body, and still lifes in their search for a new sensibility amid the modern metropolis; even humble fruit and worn clapboard could be elevated to the realm of heroic significance.

The energy and excitement of these transitions led to a remarkable period of formal investigation, often belying the notion that the primary task of the photographer was to record the scene in front of them without commentary. Artists combining traditional training and experimentation with new techniques, faster film, and smaller, hand-held cameras such as the Leica, showed us the world in entirely new ways, ways that appear at once spontaneous and yet are shaped with extraordinary care. In doing so, artists of this period -- from roughly the turn of the twentieth century to the outbreak of World War II -- made images that in many ways continue to define what we mean by great photography.

Active Witness

From the dawn of the Great Depression in 1929 to the dropping of the first atomic bomb nearly twenty years later, photographers -- along with the rest of humanity -- were witness to an unrelenting series of opportunities to observe human misery on a global scale. Although photojournalism was among the earliest applications of photography, the events of the 1930s and 40s and the progressive political tenor of the times unleashed a documentary impulse in many photographers. Depression-era agencies of the U.S. Government hired photographers by the hundreds to document the impact of environmental and economic disasters, as well as the relief and public works projects intended to alleviate their impact. An explosion of new, visually driven print media, including magazines such as Life and Look, dispatched photographers the world over to cover war, famine, and murder -- as well as Hollywood stars, the latest vehicles from Ford and General Motors, and the pleasures of domestic life after the second World War. Not all the resulting work was of great artistic merit, of course, but with the proliferation of photographic images and subjects came a growing awareness of their power to influence human behavior, choices, and opinions.

The photographers whose work begins Active Witness coupled the innate charisma and immediacy of photography with a largely unexamined faith in its objectivity -- unexamined, at least, by the majority of photography's consumers. It was a uniquely powerful moment in the history of the medium, and a generation of outward-looking, socially engaged photographers embraced its potential. The concerns for self-expression and the aesthetics of the medium that had so absorbed their predecessors (or their younger selves) gave way to more direct responses to circumstances in which, in the words of Ansel Adams in 1944, "men are dying and destruction roars in almost every part of the globe." Using their own unspoken shaping consciousness and vision, these photographers took pictures of where they had been and what they had seen, advocating for the value of their subject by their physical presence on the scene as well as by the photograph itself.

After World War II, the public developed more nuanced perceptions of photography and of the role of the photographer, increasingly taking into account the creator's choices when considering the meaning of the image. Such tendencies become particularly clear in photographs from the 1960s, many documenting the social upheavals of the decade and telegraphing home to horrified audiences a new understanding of war in the jungles of Vietnam. In this sense, the public's increasing sophistication regarding photography's aura of disinterested objectivity aligned with the spirit of the time that led to Watergate. Awareness of these issues was also due to the growing tendency of photographers to insert themselves self-consciously into their work as part of "the story," overtly playing against the myth of photography's realism. In photographs of this kind, we cannot help but be aware of the photographer's presence, whether or not we literally see him or her -- a tonal shift of immense importance to the future of the medium, absorbing the conventions of the past while looking ahead with fresh eyes to the demands of a new moment.

 

Contemporary Visions

The photographic images gathered here reflect both the individual visions of artists in the post-modern era as well as the array of technical choices available today. These choices range literally across the entire history of the medium, from such antiquarian methods as the daguerreotype and the photogravure to digital technologies and video installation. Many artists today combine these techniques to create images that reflect both a contemporary emphasis on the interiority of vision and the conflicts and ambiguities of our age. Like photography's beginnings, the contemporary age can be characterized as one of experimentation and multiple directions in which no single strand predominates. After more than 165 years of making photographs, artists carry to their work a confident expectation that the creation of a photograph is perhaps more about the making of an image -- about process -- than it is about the capacities of the medium. In an age in which such capacities may appear limitless, the multiplicity of options may legitimately provoke a version of art historian Michael Baxandall's question: why this set of choices for this work of art at this time? Why a photographic image?

The very eclecticism of approach and subject matter represented here defies an easy or even coherent answer to Baxandall's question. At times, the subjects and moments selected may appear more banal than decisive, or may seem to translate the intimate to the scale of the monumental. Many photographers have pushed the boundaries of the medium to what would seem to be the limits of even the new digital technologies for shooting and printing images -- including the possibilities of scale seemingly limited only by the size in which paper can be made onto a sheet or a roll. Even images dealing with AIDS or 9/11 often rely on tools of indirection to suggest the momentous impact of these phenomena on our corporate or individual lives.

One of the most striking aspects of the photographs on view in this final section is the preponderance of the human figure -- typically seen without the gravitas of the past. These are often idiosyncratic images suggesting a deeply personal vision on the part of the artist or a personal relationship between photographer and subject (even as the nature of that relationship may remain mysterious, impenetrable). The personal or the personal narrative is a strong thread linking many of these images from the past thirty years, perhaps suggesting that today it is more credible to address the public sphere in a sidelong fashion that explicitly invokes the participation of the viewer into the act of making meaning. In an era in which images are so constantly and insistently with us, this indirection may invite us to look more closely, to reflect on meaning rather than being satisfied with mere instantaneous communication.

As suggested by the In Focus panels in this exhibition, some issues and questions associated with photography's reception have remained resonant and unresolved. While the viewer in the digital age cannot but have a complicated relationship to the special claims of photography to witness, record, and document, this possibility is invoked, like it or not, by the sense that someone or something that existed has been captured by the photographic image-frozen in time and for time. This set of expectations, a sort of body knowledge of vision, is set in play when we stand before an image identified as a photograph. For contemporary image makers this field of play is a wide-open one, an expectation they may fulfill, complicate, baffle, or defy.

 

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