Early American photography Smithsonian: Photographs spotlighting life in 19th- and early 20th-century America are the focus of an exhibition at the National Museum of American Art through April 20.


WASHINGTON - As construction of the transcontinental railroad pressed forward during the 1800s, the iron horse wasn't the only thing to connect America's western frontiers with its populated East.

With every new rail put down, photographers, bulky equipment and all, followed close behind, creating images of new and brilliant landscapes they encountered - works that ultimately became a visual link for many Americans to the vast, untamed reaches of their young and expanding nation.

A remarkable body of these early renditions of the far West and a host of vintage photographs spotlighting life in 19th- and early 20th-century America are the focus of a special exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art through April 20.

175 images

"American Photographs: The First Century" provides a fascinating survey of the early development and popularity of photography in the United States. The show contains 175 images from the collection of Philadelphia collector Charles Isaacs, and was organized by the museum's curator for photography, Merry Foresta.

Isaacs, a former staff photographer and photo editor with the Philadelphia Inquirer, first began collecting photographs in the mid-1970s. He amassed more than 300 works, many dating from before 1900. The Smithsonian acquired the collection in 1994.

The advent of photography in 1839 transformed the way people viewed both their immediate and outside worlds. More than a novelty, the medium soon became a useful means for personal and historic documentation, commercial advertising, scientific study and artistic expression.

The show opens with a view of Yosemite valley captured by Eadweard Muybridge in 1872. A few feet away, Niagara's waters thunder forth in a scene photographed by George Barker around 1888.

A series of landscape vistas by Carlton Watkins gives way to the harsh, gritty realm of Civil War battlefields, with images by Matthew Brady, Timothy O'Sullivan and Alexander Gardner.

Daguerreotypes, cyanotype

Virtually all of the works in the exhibit were the product of careful, intentional picture-taking. Nowhere is this more evident than in the show's small selection of early daguerreotypes from the 1850s.

The 11 daguerreotypes on display include a tender studio portrait of a small child on a rocking-horse, and a somewhat restive view of a dentist at work on a patient's mouth.

Vibrant blue cyanotype contact prints complement a rich pot-pourri of black-and-white images detailing everyday life in 19th-century America.

A man, warmed by a luminous campfire, sleeps peacefully under a tilted canoe in a platinum print by William Lyman Underwood from about 1895.

Across the room, an umber albumen print, "View at Gervanda Looking Downstream From the Bridge" (circa 1880), presents a tranquil view through an oval window of people as they row and linger along a river. Adjacent to it, another albumen work shows a group of fishermen as they unload their catch on the New Jersey shore - a moment captured by decorative art master Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1887.

Around the turn of the century, photography began to take shape as an art form, most notably with the debut of a new aesthetic vision known as pictorialism.

It is not difficult to become entranced by the soft-focus, impressionist-like world of pictorialist imagery in some of the most alluring works on display.

Included here are beautiful portraits by leading pictorialists such as Clarence White, Gertrude Kasebier and Clara Sipprell.

One imperturbable gem by Kasebier, "The Manger" (1899), depicts a veiled mother seated cradling her child in a stable stall. Although some viewed the work as a latter-day rendition of the Madonna with Child, Kasebier dismissed notions of it having any religious overtones. To her, the effects of light, form and pattern, and not necessarily content, were of prime importance.

Rounding out the show are roughly two dozen large-scale views of the American West that fill one spacious gallery - works mainly by photographers who worked for government-backed geological surveys or the railroads.

The National Museum of American Art is at Eighth and G streets Northwest. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission is free.


On the Internet

If you can't make it in person to view the exhibition of vintage photographic works from the collection of Charles Isaacs, currently on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art, there is another way to enjoy the show - via the Internet.

The museum has established an interactive home page on the World Wide Web specifically devoted to photography and the photographic collection at the NMAA.

The site features a tour of the exhibit with curator Merry Foresta as host; the ability to peruse the museum's photography collection; an audio critique of selected images by various experts; and links to other photography-related sites on the Internet.

The address is


Pub Date: 3/09/97

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