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The BMA's Mammoth Photography Show Almost Overwhelms

AND ALL THE KIDS AT P.S. 192: Sid Grossman's "Untitled (Coney Island)," 1947.

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 5/28/2008

From turn-of-the-19th-century romantic pictorialism to the New York School's spontaneous street photography tradition of the 1960s, the Baltimore Museum of Art's Looking Through the Lens uses a wide-angle approach. Rena Hoisington, this exhibit's curator, has framed the medium's upbringing with both reliable and unpredictable choices. Starting out with the romantic formalist tradition of Edward Weston and his pioneering cross-continent journey to document the natural landscape of Walt Whitman-era America, we are subsequently led to view our homeland--placed here in an emigration-enriched context--with its myriad social landscapes, unfolding artistic styles, and simple human dramas. As judiciously evidenced in Looking, photography also was the first art form in which male and female artists stood pretty much on a simultaneous footing from the start.

Alfred Stieglitz first promoted and institutionalized photography's democratic progress in his lavish 1903-'17 publication, Camera Work. Stieglitz's illustrated periodical, of which, notably, the BMA possesses a full run of 50 issues--donated in 1939 by poet and assistant to Stieglitz, Cary Ross--is displayed in a plexiglass vitrine, enabling visitors to familiarize themselves with the pivotal publication in both its original book form and as separated, conserved, and framed photogravures, now made safe for posterity from handling and acid migration.

The name-dropping list of works and artists in the collection is extensive, bowing to the insights of collector George H. Dalsheimer. BMA's 3,000-plus photography collection was originally created out of his purchases, with many early greats besides Stieglitz and Weston included, such as Man Ray and Paul Strand. Over time, further BMA purchases were facilitated by the Edward Gallagher Memorial Fund and later enhanced through additional contributions, significantly including Life magazine, to feature László Moholy-Nagy, André Kertesz, Eugene Atget, Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Steichen, Paul Outerbridge, Aaron Siskind, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Robert Capa, Weegee, James Van der Zee, E.J. Bellocq, Imogen Cunningham, Gordon Parks, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Robert Frank, and introducing others: Martin Munkacsi, Raoul Ubac, August Sander--many placing Western European influences on the light table.

Looking is a people-loving show taken in its entirety, although a lesser nod is made to landscape and still life. It has a fancy for the absolute, be it poverty, passion, high style, playfulness, oddity, or absurdity, with numerous iconic images instilling a sense of primacy. Hoisington has compartmentalized the approaches into sections: Pictorialism, which includes subgroups like the French Photo-Club de Paris and the American Photo-Secession; Camera Work's advancement of the aggregating art form; Modernism and its total rejection of pictorialism; Surrealism, with its superimpositions and resulting incongruities; the social documentary Photo League, the vivid witnessing of the Farm Security Administration of the Great Depression that would make superstars of its camera staff; Life Magazine, which would bring the art form into the American household. Finally, there is the New York School section and examples of new experimentation from the Institute of Design, which directs much of what photography manifests today in the way of self-expression, homages to graffiti, deconstruction, or abstracted components of things rather than the things themselves.

Have any important photographers been excluded in the far-reaching array of practitioners? Only a few: Mathew Brady, Eadward Muybridge, Julia Margaret Cameron, Eliot Porter, Barbara Morgan, Philippe Halsman, Diane Arbus, etc. Never mind, though, as this exhibition is almost exhausting. Partly this is because photography is a penetrating psychological event with subordinate subtleties vying between truth and contrivance. Looking overwhelms because there is the significant distraction of droves of highly stimulated students eddying through its galleries. If distracting, this is not un-wonderful. Ineffectually hushed by their teachers, those teenagers, taunting each other, whispering their romantic conquests in small elite sorties and showing off for the opposite sex, are catalytic for many of the most famous images on the walls. The whole circus is a living installation, a multitonal fray of past and present theatrical vigor.

But that is most precisely why, upon returning home, it would be edifying to reengage with and absorb the images, and reflect on the didactic text in a still environment, to glean what the artists, collectors, curators, and institution would have us know. It doesn't have to break the bank. The BMA could borrow from Stieglitz's Camera Work format to present its wealth of inventory in a historically appropriated series--even gather publication sponsorship as he once did, with a few salient ads at the end "in halftones with letterpress." Lack of funding shouldn't be in the conversation when such an instructive collection could provide its own afterimage.

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