I visited this exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and found to my delight an assemblage of some of the great photographs from the past 150 years of photography. The techniques ranged from Daguerreotypes and Calotypes to photos taken using the wet plate collodion process to those taken with dry plates and photographic film. The breath of subject matter and photographers gave me an wonderful introduction to this history. While it is no longer on display, I would encourage anyone interested in photography to catch any exhibit that includes some of the photographers included in this exhibition. GLB
“A Story of Photography: The Margaret and Leonard Vernon Collection”
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
October 5, 2008 – February 1, 2009
Of the 3,500 photographs in the Vernon Collection, seventy pieces were on display in this exhibit. This collection was acquired from the pioneer Los Angeles photography collectors, Margaret and Leonard Vernon, in August of this year. The collection was begun in the 1970s and includes the works of 700 photographers dating from the early 1840s.
Among the major artists whose works are included in the current exhibit are a who’s who of major American (and European) photographers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These featured photographers cover a variety of genres and include examples of the evolving technology of photography.
Nineteenth Century Photographers. The exhibit provides two significant historical English photographers from the early days of the art/science of photographic history — William Henry Fox Talbot and Julia Margaret Cameron.
William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877). While one of the early pioneers of photography and the developer of the paper negative (calotype), Fox Talbot was torn between trying to make his photographic techniques profitable (through his patented processes) as well as practical for use by himself and other photographers. The ultimate success of the calotype, and the multiple prints it was capable of producing, rested upon the contributions of many others in both England and on the continent. Among these was the use of “hypo” (sodium thiosulfate) to fix the negatives and prints as well as the many advances in coating the paper used for printing. This process of using a negative ultimately differentiated his calotype process and salt prints from the initially more popular daguerreotype process supported by the French government.
Two of Fox Talbot’s salt prints from the original colotypes were on display at this show. The first, “Lace”, was photographed in 1841 at the beginning of the photographic science; it was exhibited under a heavy cloth cover to protect it from the light in the room. The second calotype, “Articles of Porcelain” (1844), was presented in a similar manner. It was amazing and awe-inspiring to see these two early photographic pieces and to realize how far we have come in the current wet and digital darkrooms!
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879). The inclusion of Cameron’s work in this collection is a tribute to her in a number of ways. First, being a woman in nineteenth century England made her photographic efforts all the more noteworthy due to the role typically assigned to women of that era. Secondly, while her photos are definitely of a professional quality, she insisted on considering herself an “amateur” even though she accepted compensation for several of her works. She was by no means a shooter of snapshots or what we now consider a photographic consumer. The bulky view cameras, the treatment of glass plates to receive the images, and the special preparation of the albumin paper for her prints went far beyond such an amateur status! Such a task would have been a challenge to even the most able-bodied man of the day. And finally, her subjects were family members and other individuals of her class among the English gentry. Just being able to photograph was an accomplishment, but to have produced memorable portraits that have withstood the test of time makes these efforts on her part all the more significant.
Cameron is represented in this show by her “Mrs. Herbert Duckworth (Née Julia Jackson)” (1867) who would become the mother of the writer, Virginia Woolf. This portrait is delicately toned and has withstood the ravages of time, two world wars, and the rapidly evolving field of photography. It would have been interesting to have seen what she could have accomplished using the gelatin film negative developed after her death and the newer printing technologies, such as gelatin silver or platinum.
Twentieth Century Photo Photographers. Four additional standout photographers were also included in the show, including Ansel Adams, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston. These are discussed below.
Ansel Adams ((1902–1984). Adams emphasis on large-scale nature in all of its pristine purity was evident is all of his work. His passion was on the scientific control of exposure, development, and printing, topics which were later written in the trilogy of books on photographic technique that he wrote. He was a member of the f/64 group and a lifelong advocate of the precisionist style. He was also a photographer for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s. However, none of these photos was included in this exhibit.
While many of his photos are part of the Vernon collection, only one was on exhibit. I was not aware that he had photographed the skyline and buildings in New York City! The only photo included in this show was one that I have heard about for years, had seen in books, but had never seen in person: “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941; printed in 1948). The range of tones, the delicate ‘coaching’ out of details in the darkroom and the overall image was incredible. It was worth observing it from multiple angles and from various distances. The size also struck me being smaller than I had imagined.
Edward Steichen (1879–1973). Steichen photographer, just named as “The Great American Photographer” in the current issue of American Photo, the latter’s 30th year retrospective, has had a major impact on the field of photography in American in the twentieth century. Starting in the 1920s, Steichen was an advocate of the pictorialist style of art photography and was a productive photographer. In the 1930s, he was well known for his commercial product photos. In addition to that, he served the military in both world wars by heading up photographic squads that documented the war and made reconnaissance photos of military targets. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, he had a major impact upon the discipline when he became the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City and raised the perception of photography as an art form.
Steichen is represented in the current exhibit by his “Double Sunflower” (1920) photo. It is a beautifully toned gelatin silver print with amazing detail and hand coloring. Given this print, it would be a real experience to see his “Moonlight Pond” (1920s) that sold for $500,000 at auction in 2006!
Paul Strand (1890–1976). Known for his idealized technical skills and his photography of such varied subjects as nudes and commercial products, Strand became a notable photographer of the twentieth century. He is an expressionist that used 4×5 and 8×10 view cameras to photograph both urban sites and commercial products. The exhibit quotes him as saying that “…form and feeling are an individualistic and intense aesthetic based on the objective nature of reality and the intrinsic capabilities of large format cameras with a sharp lenses…” He found his ideal of beauty and decorum in nature and simple life.
Strand is represented in the current exhibit by his “Church, Rancho de Taos” (1931), a platinum print that includes excellent detail and incredible tonality. I would very much like to see other works by him at future exhibits.
Edward Weston (1886–1958). Weston was known for his nudes and his precisionist style, at least in the beginning. He evolved an affection for soft focus that would bring out the form and texture in nature. He also emphasized sensitivity to the dramatic character of the objects that he photographed while still being able to use sharp-focus and sharp definition, where appropriate to convey the ‘nature’ of his subject.
This exhibit showcases two of his nudes, “Nude” (1925), a platinum print, and “Nude on Sand, Oceana” (1936), a gelatin silver print. The delicate treatment of both of these images of the female form show amazing tonality as well as sharp definition against a non-contrasting background. These tonalities are amazing!
The above artists were the headliners of the exhibit. However, over fifty other photographers are shown; these artists are from throughout the United States and Europe. They represent a variety of time periods, artistic styles, and subject matter. In fact, more than eighty per cent of the photos in the exhibit are from other than the headliners.
I was struck by the developments in photographic technologies represented in this show. This was especially true when I noted the printing techniques used during the past 150 years. These ranged from the salt prints from collotypes (1840–1850) to the albumin prints from the early collodion wet plates (1850–1900) to the gelatin silver and platinum prints used during the twentieth century. This motivates me to learn more about these techniques and learn what I can about their use and image qualities; I hope that the Advanced Darkroom class will help me get more into this.
I found an extremely informative video on the Getty Museum site (http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/videoDetails?segid=1726) on the techniques of using the wet collodion plates and the albumin coated paper for printing.
I enjoyed the visual experience of this exhibit, “A Story of Photography” at the LACMA and will watch for future shows from this collection. There are many more famous images that were not shown at this exhibit. Also, I feel the need to learn how to better appreciate the viewing experience, since I don’t really understand what to look for in the various types of prints. I do know that looking at prints in a book does not match the personal viewing of the original images. Also, I don’t fully appreciate the printing techniques that were employed, at least beyond the basics of dodging and burning!
Overall, I would rate this exhibit as excellent and encourage others to avail themselves of the viewing experience.