Tracing the evolution of photography

Debate: Wilmington, Del., exhibit highlights 20th century trends - but is it art?

April 04, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

About halfway through "An American Century of Photography," the impressive survey of 20th century photography at the Delaware Museum of Art, there's a picture by Lewis P. Tabor that neatly sums up the eternal debate over whether photography is an art or a science.

The picture shows a great spiral galaxy, similar to our Milky Way, floating serenely amid the inky vastness of space. Surrounding it are what seem like thousands of tiny points of light, which actually are the stars lying between us and the distant object. Tabor's photograph was taken through a large astronomical telescope, and it required an exposure of several hours to register on a huge glass-plate negative.

The resulting image has the magical, hallucinatory quality of an apparition or a dream. Yet clearly it is also a precise, factual record of an objective event. Is Tabor's photograph a work of art or a scientific document? And could it possibly be both? Such questions have bedeviled photography since the earliest days of the medium.

On the evidence of this show - which brings together 150 works from the Hallmark Photographic Collection and includes such icons of the medium as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Man Ray, Imogene Cunningham, Robert Frank and Irving Penn - the issue is unlikely to be settled anytime soon.

That's because the basic premises of the medium have been continually redefined by successive generations of photographers throughout the 20th century. The issue involves whether what the image the camera produces is a mechanical trace of realty, or whether it represents a creative transformation of reality through the photographer's unique artistic vision.

At the turn of the century, when photography was still struggling for recognition as art, photographers like Clarence White, Edward Steichen and Stieglitz emphasized the medium's transformative character by producing hazy, romantic images that imitated the look of painting.

Two decades later, photographers like Weston and Paul Strand were championing so-called "straight" photography - sharply focused, minutely detailed images that purported to lay bare the objective essence of what Weston termed "the thing itself."

Weston's famous "Pepper No. 30," along with the landscapes of Ansel Adams, the botanical subjects of Cunningham and the work of such great documentarians as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, epitomized the modernist aesthetic of unadorned factual description. But Modernism in photography ended in the 1970s, its demise coinciding with the death of the great general-circulation picture magazines.

In its place arose a quirky postmodernism - represented in this show by such artists as Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Carrie Mae Weems and Sandy Skoglund - whose aesthetic frankly mimics the palpable fictions of advertising photography, movies and TV.

Thus in a little over 100 years, photography has come full circle, from transformation to trace and back to transformation again. The great value of the Delaware show lies in the clarity and comprehensiveness through which this historical evolution unfolds.

Yet ultimately it still leaves unanswered the question of what we are to make of Tabor's untitled astronomical photograph.

Most people would agree that it is beautiful, but is it art or is it science? Tabor probably would have replied that it is both. Trained in physics and chemistry, he was an astronomer at the Cook Observatory of the University of Pennsylvania as well as an accomplished photographer who exhibited at the art salons of the 1920s and 1930s.

"An American Century of Photography" suggests that the dual nature of photography - like the dual nature of light itself, which sometimes behaves like a wave and sometimes like a tiny, elastic particle - is one of those continuing, infinitely fertile mysteries that has immeasurably enriched the art of our time.

Regional art on display

If you make the trip to the Delaware Museum, be sure to stop off at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, which is featuring a group exhibit of regional artists this month. I was delighted to find the work of Sandra Camomile, a graduate of the Maryland Institute, College of Art whose hilarious send-ups of female roles greatly enlivened the Baltimore art scene some years back.

For her master's thesis exhibition at MICA in 1996, Camomile came up with such off-kilter sculptures as a gown woven from floor mops, and a corset welded together out of stainless steel knives, forks and spoons.

In the DCCA show, Camomile is represented by a large sculpture and about 20 drawings from a series called "Scrubbings," which comments ironically on women's unhappy historical identification with cleaning and laundry.

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