Sunday, February 24, 2013

Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through May 5, 2013

Photoshop has become such a part of our lives now, that we have to remind ourselves that it was not always so easy to manipulate photographs.  Before you could change images with a few clicks of a mouse, you had to spend hours in a darkroom to achieve such effects.  This exhibit at the National Gallery takes us back in time to explore the world of "fake" photography - where seeing isn't always believing.

The first use of manipulated photography was to make up for the early limits of the medium.  Gorgeous landscape photographs lacked any definition in the sky, so photographers used two different negatives to make one picture.  It's fake in the sense that it isn't one picture, it's two in combination, but it's clearly meant to give a more realistic idea of the subject than regular photography of the time would permit.  Of course, once you can alter photographs to make them more realistic, you can also alter them to improve on reality.  Postcard photographers would combine images of a city in order to create a perfect view - just like the painters of "view paintings" that I saw at the National Gallery last year.  Photographers added color to their subject's face or created group photographs by taking pictures of people one by one, and then putting all the photos together.

The problem is that once you start improving on reality, where does it end?  What can the viewer trust to be true?  The exhibit does not back away from the dark side of photography, and devotes an entire section of the show to the uses it has been put to by politicians and other demagogues.  The photos that stuck in my mind from this portion are the ones from the Stalin era, as one by one, followers who fell out of favor were removed from an official photograph.  The truly frightening thing is not that these people were removed from a photograph, but that they were removed permanently in life as well.  Photographs can be used to move public opinion, and when images are fake, public opinion can be moved in terrible directions.

The final section of the show concentrates on photography as an art form.  Yes, the images are faked, but that's obvious to all but the most naive viewer.  Note that there is a sucker born every minute - William Mumler created ghost photographs, which he told the credulous depicted their departed loved ones.  Happily, he was eventually arrested on charges of fraud and larceny.  Others, however, used the medium with no intent other than to create works of art.  The photo pictured above is one by Yves Klein, which I saw at his big retrospective at the Hirshhorn several years ago (pre-blog, in fact), called Into the Void.  I was quite underwhelmed by Klein's work, but I liked this shot - I find it clever.  I'm sure it's meant to represent a man trying to kill himself, and should therefore be depressing, but I find it exhilarating somehow, as if the man is flying out of the window, and about to take off into the wild blue yonder.

Verdict: This is a good show - well organized and thought-provoking.  It's manageable in a lunch hour, but if you want to linger over any of the photographs, it will take a bit longer than a mid-day break.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Exhibits in the Artifact Walls

Where: American History Museum

When: through February 11, 2013

I went over to the American History Museum on Monday, as I had just discovered that three exhibits in the artifact walls were coming down that day.  Not much in the way of advance warning; I had looked at the exhibit listing over the weekend, and realized I only had one day to see these.

I understand that displays have to come down in order for new things to go up - how else would I have years' worth of shows to see?  What I don't quite get is why we visitors don't get a bit more notice.  I have a sneaking suspicion that the website doesn't always have up-to-date info; I may have to dig around a bit and figure out how to get better intelligence...

When I arrived at American History, I found out that one of the displays (which I gather was on the Mexican Revolution) was already down.  A disappointment, but no use crying over spilled milk.  I had two displays to see, and see them I would.

The first, called Sweet & Sour, was on Chinese food in the United States.  There are more Chinese restaurants in the US than McDonalds, Burger Kings and Pizza Huts combined.  I would never have guessed that - McDonalds in particular seem to be omnipresent.  What began as places for immigrants to get some familiar dishes in a new country, became dining spots with a hint of the exotic for those not from China and today are as mainstream as tacos and spaghetti.  In fact, one of the hallmarks of Chinese restaurants, the fortune cookie, is not Chinese at all.  It's an American invention, influenced by Japanese cuisine.  The iconic Chinese food takeout box is known as an oyster pail outside the US, which was its original use.

The second display, COBOL, was about the computer language.  COBOL was originally proposed by Mary Hawes of Burroughs in 1959 and devised by a committee of computer programers.  It was the first language that could run on different brands of computers.  The UNIVAC was one of the first two computers to run COBOL.  I was reminded of Emirac, the computer in Desk Set, one of my favorite movies.  We've come a long way since COBOL, but we wouldn't have come anywhere without it.

Verdict: These displays are down now, so I can't recommend checking them out.  You never know what you'll see in these cases, however, so it's always worth a look on your way in or out of the museum.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Nature's Best 2011 Photography Awards: Windland Smith Rice International Awards

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through April 2013 (no specific closing date yet available)

It was my week for seeing annual exhibits at the Natural History Museum.  This one is a favorite of mine: the Windland Smith Rice photography awards winners.  I wondered who Windland Smith Rice was - a photograph of her included with the contest winners showed a relatively recent photo of a young woman, and the exhibit commentary spoke of her in the past tense, so I guessed she must be dead.  A quick check of the Internet (I'm getting this from Wikipedia, so take with a grain of salt) revealed that she was a wildlife photographer who died of a sudden illness in 2005 when she was only 35 years old.  A shame, that someone so talented and apparently so encouraging of other photographers should die so young.

But enough melancholy - on to the exhibit!  I love seeing this every year - the photographs are excellent.  The subject matter is gorgeous: wildlife in all its majesty, humor and beauty.  The commentary with each picture tells of photographers waiting hours to get just the right shot; I admire their dedication to their craft immensely.  Then, only the finest printers and highest quality papers are used to reproduce the photographs.  You really feel as if you're "in" the action - the sharp, crisp photos are that fantastic.  And the colors!  So vibrant, so rich - it's breathtaking.  Each step of the process is so high caliber, and the results show this.  The fact that I can see this for free reminds me (not that I forget, mind you) how lucky I am to live and work so close by the Smithsonian.

Verdict: Do not miss this excellent small show.  I'd say you could see something else on the same trip, but you'll want to linger over these photographs.

Orchids of Latin America

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through April 21, 2013

Every year, the Natural History Museum and the Botanic Gardens put on an orchid exhibit.  One year, the exhibit is shown at Natural History and the next, it's shown at the Gardens.  As the Gardens are a bit far for me to go on a lunch hour, I'm delighted when it's Natural History's turn to host.  Although the museum is always noisy and full of people, the orchid exhibit manages somehow to create its own little world of quiet beauty and soft fragrance.  Visiting is like taking a vacation to a tropical paradise - a welcome escape from the cold winter weather and gloomy February skies outside.

This year, the orchids on display are from Latin America, where they grow in abundance and much variety.  To attempt to describe the colors and shapes is pointless - you really have to see it for yourself to truly appreciate it.  Suffice it to say they are lovely and no two are exactly alike.

As with all Natural History shows, I learned quite a bit at this exhibit.  I'd always thought of orchids as rare, delicate flowers, but in fact, they are quite hardy and adaptive.  There are 20,000 known species of orchids, making them one of the world's largest plant families.  I also found out that vanilla is an orchid seed pod - it's one of the few orchids whose value comes from something other than its flower.

Unlike other shows I've seen here, there were several photographers in attendance - and I do mean photographers, not just people snapping photos with their phones, although there were some of those as well.  Whether they were amateurs, simply taking pictures they thought would be pretty, or professionals who intended to use the photos in some commercial endeavor, I don't know, but they were much in evidence.  If you go, allow time to walk around them.

Verdict: Well worth a trip, no matter how bad the weather outside.  In fact, the more dreary the day, the more you'll appreciate the show.