Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Where: American Art Museum

When: through January 5, 2014

This show celebrates the 30th anniversary of the American Art Museum's photography collection.  It is composed of 100 of the museum's over 7,000 photographs.  The show is divided into several sections: American Characters, Spiritual Frontier, America Inhabited and Imagination at Work.  I found some photographs clearly fit in the categories to which they were assigned, and others I thought were a bit of a stretch - perhaps a "miscellaneous" category would have been helpful?

Walt Whitman is quoted as having said that photography is a quintessentially American activity and, now that I think about it, perhaps he's right.  When I think of great photography, I do tend to think of Americans.  Of course, that might be that I live here and am exposed (no pun intended) to more American photography than works from other countries.  In any event, there is lots of American photography to see, and this show offers up plenty.

Of course, there is an Ansel Adams piece; no points for picking him out of a crowd.  He's one of the few black and white photographers whose work I just love.  I don't even try to imagine what his shots would look like in color, which is saying something for someone so enamored of color as I am.

I was quite proud of myself for recognizing a set of Harry Callahan pieces.  I went to a retrospective of his work at the National Gallery a while back, and I knew his wife Eleanor as soon as I saw her in one of those terribly unflattering poses.  I admire her dedication to her husband's art; surely it must be dedication, as no one would pose for those pictures thinking they would look attractive.

Another familiar photographer on display is William Wegman, with a set of greyhound pieces.  I don't have strong feelings about Wegman (or about greyhounds, for that matter), so I've never been quite sure what all the fuss is about.  I envy his ability to get his dogs to sit still long enough to take a picture, but I wouldn't spend a fortune to buy one of his photographs.

A piece that I might have overlooked is one by Walker Evans.  It's entitled, "Kitchen Wall, Alabama Farmstead" and is part of the series of photographs he took for the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  I just read an article in a magazine about that project, so I spent a bit more time with the photo than I would have otherwise done.  It's not an action photo, but it does paint quite a picture of people making do with very little, of desperate times calling for desperate measures.

Another artist featured is Eadweard Muybridge; his piece is one of a western landscape.  His first name is spelled in such an unusual way, that I feel as if I've seen it before - possibly in the show (in the same space) of pictures of the American West?

Verdict: A large show, but worth spending the time to see some very fine photography.

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