Photo show focuses on the art and awe Exhibit: The first century of American camera work illustrates the photographers' excitement about their technique and their country.

December 22, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

There's a longing that goes with a visit to a show of early photographs, a wish for the impossible -- to be back there and experience the excitement that accompanied this invention of a new way to picture the world.

And it's doubled when the show is of early American photographs, for the new medium was being used to record a still relatively new country whose possibilities -- like those of photography itself -- seemed limitless.

In the show "American Photographs: The First Century" at Washington's National Museum of American Art, one sees in the photographs of the vast Western landscape a sense of the wonder of what's there combined with the enthusiasm for capturing it. That's probably best seen in Timothy O'Sullivan's "Black Canyon, Colorado River, from Camp 8, Looking Above" (1871).

We see the sides of the canyon, making a V down to the water below as in many other such works; but in the foreground O'Sullivan has included the photographer's little boat, with his black-cloth-covered makeshift darkroom. It's as if he's showing us that with such modest means he can make himself and all of us the owners of the whole visible world.

The same sense of joy and pride in use of the medium and its ability to immortalize the moment comes through just as strongly in pictures of subject matter less obviously awesome. A sense of occasion and dignity permeates an unidentified artist's "Two Workmen Polishing a Stove" (about 1865). In another unidentified photographer's "Artists' Excursion, Sir John's Run, Berkeley Springs" (1858), the group of artists are gathered around and on a locomotive -- as if they are there to introduce locomotive and camera, those recent inventions, to each other.

Gain and loss

Advances often bring with them a sense of loss. The printed book is not the unique work of art that an illuminated manuscript was, and when we can all go out and snap photographs at will (whatever the quality) we necessarily lose the sense of accomplishment that must have accompanied the creation of an image a century and a half ago.

Even technical advances, as this show reminds us, are not without their downside. The image produced by a salted paper print, such as Franklin White's "Trapped Boulder, White Mountains" (1859) is not as crisp as that produced by the albumen print, such as William Bell's "Perched Rock, Rocker Creek, Arizona" (1872). But the earlier work possesses a certain tonal subtlety and elegance that eludes the later one. And how often do we achieve today the astonishing clarity of detail that was possible with the daguerreotype, as in "The Ohio Star Buggy" (about 1850), by an unidentified artist?

This exhibit of some 160 photographs, dating from the mid-19th century to about 1935, offers an assemblage of many individual pleasures rather than a complete overview of the period covered. That's only natural, since it reflects one person's taste. It represents about half of the collection of Charles Isaacs, a Philadelphia photographer and collector, which the museum acquired by purchase and gift two years ago.

In his brief essay in the accompanying catalog, Isaacs states that he began collecting photography in the mid-1970s, and soon concentrated on American work both because it was more affordable than European photography and because he was drawn to certain qualities of American pictures.

"American pictures were, to a great extent, made for straightforward commercial or prosaic reasons by camera operators with few pretensions to being artists," he writes. "At their best, a heightened sense of the power of the vernacular permeates them. To my eye, something in their unadorned, if sometimes surreal, honesty makes them appealing. At the same time, some photographers made pictures that are sublimely beautiful, inspired perhaps by the idea of art but just as surely by the beauty of their often still-wild and natural surroundings. This combination of understated lyricism and romance, with the oddball leavening of the commonplace, is what, to me, makes American photographs so unique."

To appreciate Isaacs' observations, one need only compare the American photographs in this show with the European ones in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art show of 1993 covering the same period, "The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century."

Before the period of the turn-of-the-century pictorialists, whose concern was to elevate photography to the status of an art form, there is little in these American photographs to match the self-conscious artistry evident in much of the early work from England and France: the drama of lighting and composition, the stage-like poses, the symbolic juxtaposition of objects. What was there seems to have been remarkable enough for the Americans; they didn't have to make more of it.

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