UMBC focuses on early photographers


November 26, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Did you know that most of Mathew Brady's photographs of the Civil War were not taken by Mathew Brady?

It's not generally known even now, but by the time of the war his eyesight had deteriorated and he hired about 20 other photographers, whose work he published under his own name as "Images of the War."

That's one of many things to be learned from "Past Light/Present Image," a highly interesting if slightly frustrating exhibit of 19th century photography at UMBC's Kuhn Library and Gallery. It includes two Civil War photos originally taken for Brady, now known to be by Timothy O'Sullivan and the team of Wood & Gibson.

If the truth about Brady's photos isn't generally known, neither is UMBC's photo collection. Thanks to curator Tom Beck, who has developed it since 1974, it now numbers more than a million images covering the entire history of photography. According to Beck this show of 87 works is the first major exhibit devoted to 19th century works.

It shows, among much else, the development of photography from daguerreotypes and ambrotypes of the 1850s up to William Henry Jackson's "Mt. Shasta" (about 1890s), a "photochrom" print with lithography used to color the black and white photograph. Along the way there are many fascinating and sometimes beautiful images, some of them by figures now well known to historians of photography such as O'Sullivan and Jackson, Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, John G. Bullock, F. Holland Day and Arnold Genthe.

The early impulse to document famous places is represented by a number of artists including Francis Frith's photographs of pyramids and other sites in Egypt. John Thomson's series "Street Life in London" (1877-'78) is an early example of social documentation.

Portraiture, and especially the popularity of celebrities, is represented by (among others) Napoleon Sarony's and Benjamin Falk's separate renderings of actress "Julia Marlowe" (1891). There are several works from Muybridge's famous studies of men and women in motion in the series "Animal Locomotion." The interest in the American West is reflected in Watkins' and Jackson's important work, and Bullock's pictorialism closes the


The show could have been better organized, and while there are explanatory labels they could be more informative. But those are relatively minor drawbacks of an exhibit that highlights a major and too little known collection.

"Past Light/Present Image" continues through Jan. 26 at the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 5401 Wilkens Ave. Call (410) 455-2270.

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