BMA's shows its powerful pictures Review: The museum is exhibiting its growing collection of 20th century photography.

November 04, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Dorothea Lange's photos of migrant workers in the 1930s go right to the heart of the matter.

Her "Children of Migrant Agricultural Workers in California (Children in Automobile)" (1937) shows three boys crowded together at the back window of a run-down-looking car (actually, it looks more like a truck). Their worried expressions show that poverty has aged them far beyond their years. Their confinement in the car symbolizes their confinement in the prison of poverty. They recall, ironically, the words on the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." These boys are tired and poor and huddled and yearning to breathe free. But for them, America is not the "golden door" of which the poem speaks.

This profound photograph is from the exhibit "A Century of American Photography/A Decade of BMA Acquisitions" at the Baltimore Museum of Art. As the show's text relates, the BMA's photo collection came of age with the 1988 acquisition of the Dalsheimer collection of 700 photographs, particularly strong in American 20th-century works. In the decade since, the museum has continued to collect. This exhibit concentrates on works not shown before, and two of its focuses are documentary photography of the 1930s to 1950s and contemporary photography.

In the first group, Lange's photo stands out, but there are other notable works, including variations on the documentary theme. Wright Morris' unpeopled "Row House With White Steps, Baltimore" (1939) demonstrates that you can show a lot about people's lives without showing people: the rickety white steps indicate the marginal condition of those who live in the house behind them. Walker Evans' "Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Street" (1935) shows the street from an angle that emphasizes the abstract patterning of the houses.

Just inside the show's second gallery, which houses contemporary work, a group of photographs of children propels the viewer into the ambiguous terrain of photography today. Whereas once the photograph was thought to inhabit the domain of fact, now the photographer's strategies and manipulations may seek a truth beyond mere fact and can also use the camera to deceive. Some works also bring to mind questions about the relevance of the artist's motives.

The young girl smoking a cigarette in Mary Ellen Mark's "Amanda and Her Cousin Amy in Valdese, North Carolina" (1990) may have been photographed to show how shocking it is to see a child smoking. But who knows what effect it will have on those who see it?

John Radcliffe's two photographs from the "Alison" series were taken only a year apart, 1989 and 1990. In the first, the girl is still a tousle-haired child, in the second a made-up adolescent with a mask-like face. Did Radcliffe record this or set it up? The mere fact that one is led to ask such a question may be a reflection on the cynicism of the age.

Turning from the group of children, one encounters more ambiguity and artifice. Is the sad-looking woman in Eileen Cowin's "Untitled" (1986) someone the viewer should feel sorry for, or a posed model? In Laurie Simmons' "Black Bathroom, April 16, 1997," is the doll in the bathtub an object of desire or pity?

After all this uncertainty, to come upon William Eggleston's untitled photograph from his "Graceland" portfolio (1983) makes one unsure how to take it. Does it show a corner of a room in Elvis Presley's mansion, or is it, too, made up?

There's a lot more to this thought-provoking show. It includes a group of recent photographs of women by women (including Cindy Sherman, Connie Imboden, Nan Goldin and Lorna Simpson), abstract landscapes by Frederick Sommer and Terry Evans, and works by several artists with Baltimore and Maryland connections, including a photo by the late Cary Beth Cryor, given to the museum in her memory by former BMA director Arnold Lehman and his wife, Pamela.

Exhibit

What: "A Century of American Photography/A Decade of BMA Acquisitions"

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Jan. 11

Admission: $6; $4 seniors and students; free for 18 and under

Call: 410-396-7100

Pub Date: 11/04/97

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