Page 49

CRITICAL REFLECTIONS

Reconsidering

the

Photographic Masterpiece

University 1 University

With Alfred Stieglitz

walls of either bright white or gunmetal grey. There are

New Mexico Art Museum UNM Center for the Arts New Mexico, Albuquerque

of

of

Julia Margaret Cameron, which feels like coming home.

separate sections for churches, buildings, masks, people,

The greats are accounted for: Atget, Steichen, Weston,

as the greeter and Michele Penhall as the curator, we are

landscapes, and more. The plant and flower corner is a

Arbus, Cartier-Bresson—but in keeping with the museum’s

in good hands. The UNM Art Museum’s new exhibition,

pleasure. Here are Anna Atkins, Lady Mary Georgiana

educational mission, we also discover some arguably

Reconsidering the Photographic Masterpiece, takes us deep

Caroline Filmer, Karl Blossfeldt, Betty Hahn, Laura Gilpin, and

lesser-known photographers like Anna Atkins, through her

into the museum’s extensive collection, presenting more

Edward Weston offering us everything from ambrotype to

cyanotype Hymenophyllum Wilsoni (ca. 1850). Lifting the

than one hundred and thirty images selected from its ten

Victorian photocollage to embroidered French knots.

protective black velvet veil that covers the fragile image,

thousand photographs. First up is Stieglitz’s cloudscape

A free-standing display cabinet near the front entrance

we are met with the surprise and beauty of this early blue

Equivalent (1927), which Penhall pairs with this Stieglitz

allows us close inspection at all angles of two historical

and white, iron-based photographic printing process. (The

quote as part of the wall text: “I wanted to photograph

treasures. One item is a beautifully preserved, untitled

exhibition’s nicely-produced gallery brochure includes exactly

clouds to find out what I had learned about photography.”

stereograph daguerreotype (c.1850s) by Antoine François-

the glossary we need.) In her curator’s statement Penhall says,

And once again the UNM Art Museum invites us on a

Jean Claudet and the other, Portrait of Mother and Three

“The current selection of pictures before you now—in which

learning discovery.

Children (c.1910-1920), is an autochrome (with its colors still

masterworks co-mingle with less familiar but no less masterful

beautifully intact) mounted in a diascope.

works—is one of a particular curator’s preference. This

The photographs in the exhibition date from 1843 to the present and they represent a wide range of techniques

The narrow back wall of the gallery displays Hugh

exhibition could be recreated many times over with equally

from gelatin silver prints to tintypes to collotypes to salt prints

Edwards’ statement: “A great picture is something that

renowned artists and recognized masterpieces together with

to digital prints. Some are on view for the first time. Penhall

awakens a very different reaction from each person who

unfamiliar artists and the equally compelling images all worthy

pairs many of the images with quotations either from the

looks at it.” Below this invitation are photographs by Bill

of our close attention and our renewed consideration.”

photographer or from another related, and always thought-

Brandt, Cindy Sherman, Shelby Lee Adams, and William

And this is perhaps Penhall’s point. Embedded in the exhibition

provoking, noted authority. For example, Joel-Peter Witkin’s

Eggleston which all beg for very individual responses. Shall

is the important question of what defines a masterpiece.

Face of a Woman (2004) is accompanied by art historian

we pity the coal miner, laugh at Mrs. Santa, fear the old man?

When the UNM Art Museum’s first director, Van

Eugenia Parry’s observation, “If Witkin’s excess engenders

I fell in love with an untitled gelatin silver print by

Deren Coke, started to build the collection, in the 1960s,

revulsion, even among sophisticates, it also serves a purpose.”

Robert Adams, which pulled me through a field of flowers

he set the stage for what has become one of our country’s

André Kertész’s Wooden Horses (1926) hangs beside his own

to the dark, distant trees beyond. And I also fell in love with

most respected photography collections. Penhall’s selections

words: “The camera is my tool. Through it I give a reason to

Adams’ words: “We rely, I think, on landscape photography

for this exhibition blend the personal styles of these

everything around me.” How nice for the viewer to try to see

to make intelligible to us what we already know.” Yes, yes,

photographers with history, technique, and the vivid images

as the photographer did, and also to hear his voice.

screams my brain. And here I am doing exactly what Hugh

created by the well-chosen quotations. It is impossible to

The museum’s entire Main Gallery is given over to the

Edwards invited me to do, having my own reaction. And

leave uninspired.

exhibition, and Penhall displays her thematic groupings on

later I get to spend time with another favorite photographer,

—Susan Wider

Anna Atkins, Hymenophyllum Wilsoni, cyanotype , ca. 1850

| april 2012

Martin Parr, Lynmouth, England, 1999, Fuji Crystal archival print, © Martin Parr / Rose Gallery

THE magazine | 49

The Magazine - April, 2012 Issue  

THE magazine is Santa Fe New Mexico's magazine of international art, photography, culture, and restaurant dining

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