Vaux family photographs: Magnificent, but too much of a good thing?

August 12, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Between 1887 and 1937 the Vaux family of Philadelphia produced a remarkable quartet of photographers: George (1863-1927), William S. Jr. (1872-1908) and Mary (1860-1940), all from the same generation, and George's son, also named George (born 1905). Trained as scientists -- naturalists, physicists, etc. -- they combined that training with their interest in photography, especially on annual trips to the Canadian northwest. There they photographed, among other things, the movement of glaciers to accompany their own research on the subject.

About 75 of their photographs are now on view in the Kuhn Library and Gallery at University of Maryland Baltimore County, and 75 are a few too many of a good thing.

A good thing, for sure. Judging by these photographs (most of which are unattributed to any particular Vaux, presumably because they are considered family products), the Vauxes were not simply documenting.

They had a strong aesthetic sense, and combined it with their scientific work to produce individual photographs of formal interest and sometimes great beauty. The grandeur of the landscape naturally had a lot to do with the beauty part.

In "Moulin [shaft or well cut through a glacier by a stream], Illecillewaet Glacier" (1907), the high horizon and the image's composition thrust the viewer directly into the picture, heightening the effect of what is a small and might otherwise be an insignificant looking photograph.

"Upper Bow Lake, Saskatchewan Glacier" (1902) is a study both in light and dark tones and in light and shadow.

In "Mount Stephen and Wapta Valley Field," (1899), one of the most romantic images in the show, the light seems to spill liquidly around the mountain into the lower part of the picture, like a stream of water, and a cloud passing by the mountain's top makes it look like an erupting volcano.

"Canadian Pacific Railroad Bridge" (about 1900) provides a dizzying view almost straight up to a bridge high above.

Equally impressive are the Vaux panoramas of the mountain-scapes that surrounded them, combining up to a dozen images.

On the other hand, the show does have its fatiguing aspect, and might have been more effectively edited. The library's large gallery space presents a problem in that respect, for the wall space eats up a lot of modest-sized images such as these. Edit much and you would probably end up with large areas of bare wall.

Still, there's too much sameness here. Although it's interesting to have a succession of photographs of Illecillewaet Glacier from different years and different perspectives, we don't really need 17 or 18 of them. And purely documentary photographs might have been left out with impunity. A 1902 photo of a group of railroad officials can have little interest for the modern-day viewer.

With that caveat, the exhibit can be recommended, especially to those interested in the history of photography.


What: "Arts and Sciences: Vaux Family Photographs, 1887-1937"

Where: Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 5401 Wilkens Ave.

When: During the show's run, there will be three different sets of hours. Following are the open hours common to all three periods: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Nov. 1. The building will be closed Sept. 4, 5 and 6.

Call: (410) 455-2270

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