A Clear Focus Looking up: Remodeling and a strong show of women's photos from a vast, untapped collection offer visions of good things ahead at UMBC gallery.

January 06, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

It's the same space, but it looks different. New lighting. New ceiling. Soft gray walls. No inert bodies cluttering up the place.

The renovated gallery, part of the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery at University of Maryland Baltimore County, has taken on a new life as a by-product of the library's recently opened seven-story, $19 million addition.

The gallery's space used to be the main entrance lobby for the library, so it had a constant stream of traffic. It was also scattered with sofas, usually populated with students as likely to be sleeping as studying.

Now the library has a new entrance and the gallery is no longer a thoroughfare. Rather, it is what a gallery ought to be: a place for the contemplation of art. And it has reopened with an important show, "Fields of Vision: Women in Photography."

The Kuhn gallery will be primarily, though not exclusively, devoted to showing photography, according to the library and gallery's chief curator, Tom Beck. There are two reasons for that: One, UMBC has a fine arts gallery devoted to showing all kinds of contemporary art. And two, the library has a collection of 1.5 million photographs dating from the early days of photography in the mid-19th century up to the present. "It is one of the top five academic collections in the United States," says Beck, who assumed responsibility for developing it when he came to the university in 1975.

"Fields of Vision" reflects both the gallery's mission and the collection in several ways, according to Beck and Cynthia Wayne, coordinator of exhibitions.

The show is drawn from the photography collection, so it satisfies the gallery's mission "to provide exhibitions related to the collection." Another mission is "to do exhibitions valuable to Baltimore and Washington," but in truth this show has relevance far beyond our own area.

As Beck notes, "Although photography has been around for more than 150 years, this is one of only a handful of shows ever devoted to women photographers."

The exhibit includes 105 works by 48 photographers, and is accompanied by a catalog with essay by Beck and Wayne and text entries on virtually all the photographers.

The show covers much of the history of photography chronologically -- from photographic cartes de visite, a popular form in the 1860s, to computer-produced images of the 1990s. It contains older works by Julia Margaret Cameron, Gertrude Kasebier, Margaret Bourke-White and Berenice Abbott, to more contemporary works by Judy Dater, Cindy Sherman, Starr Ockenga and Eileen Cowin, among others.

It also highlights the works of obscure names from the past who ought not to be so obscure, such as Eva Watson-Schutze and Alice Boughton, both members of the Photo-Secession, an early 20th century group led by Alfred Stieglitz and devoted to establishing photography as a major art form. Also, Frances Hubbard Flaherty, who worked with her filmmaker husband Robert Flaherty on such projects as "Nanook of the North," but was also a photographer in her own right.

The exhibit also sheds light on photographers whose work is only now beginning to gain the recognition it always should have had. Among them is Barbara Morgan, whose mid-century experimental work, including photomontages, made her, in Wayne's words, "critical to the history of photography in America." And there is Mildred Grossman, chronicler of the struggles of the working class in the 1950s and 1960s.

With the exception of two fine portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron of "Henry W. Longfellow" (1868) and "Alfred Lord Tennyson" (1888), the show is not especially notable for its 19th century work. That's understandable, because many women photographers of the period worked in the studios of male photographers and were virtually anonymous. "There's a lot of work to be done in that area," says Wayne.

The show reflects the 20th century much better, representing a variety of trends and movements. Among them are pictorialism (by Anne H. Brigman, among others); "straight" or direct photography (Berenice Abbott) that gradually replaced the painterly romanticism of pictorialism; abstractions (Lotte Jacobi); and recent developments such as manipulated images (Barbara Crane) and the image/text combination (Gail S. Rebhan).

Beck and Wayne plan to present about four shows a year in the gallery, many drawn from the photography collection. There's plenty of ground to cover. It contains 150,000 images from The Baltimore Sun; another 150,000 images representing a third of the archive of the former Baltimore News-American (the other two-thirds are at College Park); 75,000 images of the Baltimore photographer Jack Engeman and an equal number from Mildred Grossman, whose archive was recently donated to the collection; 2,500 images by the early 20th century documentary photographer Lewis Hine; several hundred images by Lotte Jacobi, and on and on.

Among the major names represented, aside from the above, are Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, James VanDerZee, Carleton Watkins, Timothy O'Sullivan, Paul Strand and Clarence White.

'Women in Photography'

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

When: Noon to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (until 8 p.m. Thursdays), 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, through Jan. 18

Call: (410) 455-2270

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