Exhibit focuses on photo medium

Show: UMBC collection examines artistic development of photography.

Fine arts

October 23, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Since the 1970s, photography has moved from the periphery of the art world to its center. Over the last generation, it has been one of the most visible media of postmodernist art, and it has also inspired some of the most provocative criticism of contemporary art practices.

So it may come as something of a surprise that there is still no generally accepted consensus about whether photography is an art, and if so, how that art is to be defined.

The debate is nearly as old as the medium itself, but for all that, it is no closer to resolution today than it was when the first daguerreotypes appeared in the middle of the 19th century. For all our vaunted visual sophistication, we still sometimes have trouble telling the difference between art and life.

Why this should be so is not immediately apparent, but it is surely the most important question raised by a large and impressive exhibition on view at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery through Dec. 8.

Titled "Light2: Images from the Photography Collections," the show offers a revealing overview of some of the main aesthetic currents that have shaped photography's evolution over the last half-century.

As this exhibition also illustrates, the UMBC collection is one of the Baltimore region's underappreciated treasures. Begun in the 1970s, the collection now holds some 1.8 million photographs, documents and other materials spanning the entire history of the medium, making it an invaluable resource for both scholars and practicing photographers.

Visitors to the Kuhn Library can't fail to notice that the show highlights two quite different notions of what the art of photography is.

The earliest pictures date from the late 1940s and early 1950s and fall squarely into the long tradition of photojournalism practiced by such masters as Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and Elliott Erwitt.

This is the kind of photography made famous by the great news picture magazines, like Life and Look, which flourished from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s. Photojournalism was based on the premise that photography could be an objective witness to events great and small, an impartial observer of the endlessly fascinating passing parade of people and places.

So here we find a 1954 picture by Seymour of conductor Arturo Toscanini at the piano, Cartier-Bresson's 1947 picture of Gandhi's funeral in India and Erwitt's study of a Wyoming farm family.

These pictures all tell stories of the sort we believe we can read at a glance. They are examples of photography as narrative description, and we are moved by them because of an implicit belief that photographs enjoy a privileged relationship to truth - the "camera cannot lie."

Yet we know too that the camera does lie and that seeing is not always believing. Photographs are, after all, images like any other; they can be altered, manipulated and exploited to conceal reality as well as to reveal it. Behind every photographic "truth" there also lies a cunning and deceitful visual fiction.

Postmodern photography has largely been concerned with subverting photography's illusion of truthfulness. Contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman systematically deconstruct the camera's imitation world to show how it is based on visual conventions most of us take for granted.

The UMBC show includes many examples of this latter conception of photographic art as the practice of interrogating the definition of photography itself.

Sherman's self-posed photograph "Nipple with Diamond," for example, deliberately upends conventional ideas about how the body should be represented, while Ralph Gibson's ambiguous photographs of pages printed with Hebrew lettering and Larry Clark's shot of a childish note pinned to a wall both ask the viewer to consider the relationship between words and pictures and between pictures and truth.

By interrogating their medium in this way, postmodern photographers are intellectual heirs of the American abstract expressionist painters of the 1940s and '50s, who sought to define their art solely in terms of the methods and materials of painting itself. Postmodern photography uses the methods and materials of photography to unmask the camera's illusion of truthfulness and make it visible for all to see.

"Light" is an intriguing show that helps explain why photography has emerged as one of the most interesting and flexible media of the contemporary art scene.

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