Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Easy Way Out

Curators periodically prefer to take the path of least resistance and mount exhibitions culled from their own institution’s vaults rather than pursue the more exhaustive and expensive enterprise of assembling works from far-flung sources.  Apart from the time and money saved, there is surely some appeal in the notion of seeing what’s in the basement rather than racking one’s brain coming up with an original idea. 

A prime example of this approach is the exhibition "Treasures of the Alfred Stieglitz Center: Photographs from the Permanent Collection" currently showing in the Honickman and Berman Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April 7.

Curator Peter Barberie never sets out to offer a comprehensive survey of the PMA’s vast, rich holdings.  Instead, we are informed, these works are “highlights” purporting to “trace the medium’s history as an art form.” 

He should have racked his brain. 

While any responsible museum rotates its permanent collection now and then, if an underlying organizing principle lies behind the decision, it deserves more than a casual exposition.  The challenge with these didactic shows quite often lies as much in the accompanying materials and wall labels as in the concept.  Curators shouldn’t be cavalier just because they have unlimited treasures from which to pick.  A little effort is required to elucidate, not just illustrate.  In this instance, visitors unfamiliar with the details of photography’s history won’t glean much from this highly abridged edition; nor is there any serious attempt to help educate them.

The famous (William Henry Fox Talbot) and less well-known (Charles Aubry) are represented here employing the earliest methods (paper negatives, daguerreotypes, albumen and collodian wet plates) up to the most current.  A wide variety of styles and movements are also on view including but not limited to architectural records of the ancient world, street photography, portraiture, still life, etc. Again, the work ranges from the famous (Robert Frank) to the not-so-famous (Joachim Koester)

At the exhibition’s core are a series of works by Alfred Stieglitz and Dorothy Norman, a Stieglitz protégé, lover and keeper of the flame, whose generous donations in the late '60's helped establish the Center.  Stieglitz’s work has long belonged to the canon; Norman's work has not.  Nothing here will change that circumstance.

No reputation in the history of photography has been more inflated than that of Stieglitz.  Had he only been a promoter and gallery owner, his championing of photography and modernist art would have sufficed to secure his reputation; but Stieglitz was a photographer of enormous energy if not talent who had a way of mythologizing his efforts.

It is sacrilege not only to suggest he talked a better game than he photographed, but worse, the failure to genuflect in front of works such as “The Steerage” or his badly exposed and printed “Equivalents” is grounds for derision by the photographic community.  “The Steerage” has often been cited as photography’s own Cubist apotheosis rather than the matter-of-fact image it is, while the “Equivalents” may take the heavens for their subject but remain earthbound for all that.

Stieglitz innovated insofar as he took lots of pictures under difficult circumstances.  The labors themselves, in blizzard conditions and driving rain, presented serious challenges and he answered them all.  The images themselves rarely rose above the level of snapshots.

The exceptions to his overblown and overwrought oeuvre were his photographs of Georgia O’Keefe, Norman’s predecessor.  These include a number of powerful images whose subject’s own provocative life ensured their renown.  For these Stieglitz was justifiably well known.  They did not merit beatification, however.

Stieglitz’s portraits of Norman are another matter altogether.  They pale in comparison to those of O’Keefe.  Perhaps the fault lay in the subjects’ stardom, not the photographer.  Norman was no O’Keefe in most respects, temperament in particular.  She was lovely and adoring, and in the end perhaps all that mattered…to Stieglitz.

Meanwhile, Norman’s images pale on their own merit.  There is nothing about them that meets the exhibition’s criterion to “trace the medium’s history as an art form” let alone qualifies them as highlights of the collection.  They appear only out of politeness.

(A version of this piece first appeared in The Broad Street Review.  Click here to see it.)

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