Looking at History from Across the Room: American Photography X2

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Photography’s past and present converge at the Center for the Arts Gallery at Towson University where American Photography X2 displays a pair of exhibitions side by side by Liz Donadio

On tour from the Reading Public Museum in Reading, PA, Masters of American Photography presents twenty-five significant works that span over 100 years of the history of the medium. Its companion exhibition, American Photography Today, was specially curated to feature contemporary works that respond both visually and thematically to the Reading’s historic collection. This thoughtful combination reveals the incredible growth of photography and its diverse application by artists currently.

Blaise Tobia, Untitled (double green), archival inkjet print, 2013
Blaise Tobia, Untitled (double green), archival inkjet print, 2013

American Photography Today is displayed in the front of the gallery, where large and vivid color photographs call the viewer into the room. Containing a wide variety of imagery, the work makes use of all available wall space, including columns, without seeming cluttered.

Themes of portraiture, landscape, and still-life are represented in both exhibitions but most clearly identified in the contemporary show. The photographs are arranged according to subject matter and show the varying approach of each artist, with straight-forward landscape images paired with digital collages and portraits that are both traditional and abstract in nature.

Fig 4_ Stockbridge_Donna
Jeffrey Stockbridge, Donna, archival pigment print, 2010

Of all the genres, the portraiture section is the most compelling. It presents a wide range of individuals, each with a strong sense of identity. Jeffrey Stockbridge’s Donna, 2010, gazes directly out at the viewer and we look back at her dignified pose, much like the photographer did.

Fig 3_Camp_John Hope Franklin
Donald E. Camp, The Historian/Dr. John Hope Franklin, photosensitive casein and earth pigments on paper, 2006

Traditional and modern uses of photography are visible side by side in the still-life group, with an exquisite black and white darkroom print of a lightbulb next to a collaborative image that references the dislocation of our society through the Internet.

Included in Masters of American Photography are such well-known photographers as Eadweard Muybridge, Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, and others. These masterful individuals created iconic photographs that have become some of the most important documents of America’s changing landscape in the early 20th century. It feels quite special to be in the immediate presence of the original pictures, photographs that are so familiar but reveal new subtleties when viewed in person.

Installation photo by Zeke Luman, 2014
Installation photo by Zeke Luman, 2014

Sequenced and designed by the Reading Museum itself, the uniform display of their collection is systematic and concise. All of the images are identically framed and arranged chronologically, allowing each photograph to speak for itself, while also benefitting from the context of the surrounding images. Made in either the silver gelatin or photogravure process, each photograph is so delicately printed as to have every single tone and detail visible. Edward Weston’s Pepper No. 30, 1930, practically glows behind the glass.

The majority of the prints were created by the photographers themselves around the same time that the negative was taken. One can imagine Dorothea Lange’s hand holding up Migrant Mother and wonder if she realized at the time that this single portrait would come to represent the struggles of so many during the Great Depression.

and Edward Weston, Pepper No. 30, 1930, gelatin silver print, Printed in 1960s, Printed by Cole Weston. Photograph Courtesy of the Reading Public Museum.
Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, photogravure, Edition #36/300, Published by Aperture under the auspices of the Dorothea Lange Collection at the Oakland Museum. Photograph Courtesy of the Reading Public Museum and Edward Weston, Pepper No. 30, 1930, gelatin silver print, Printed in 1960s, Printed by Cole Weston. Photograph Courtesy of the Reading Public Museum.

As images line every wall in the wide open space of the Center for the Arts Gallery, American Photography X2 leaves it up to the viewer to draw connections between the two disparate exhibitions. It is not immediately clear that they are distinct, with the show from the Reading Museum hung on the farthest walls and possibly overlooked. At first glance, American Photography Today may seem to be more enticing; the work is large, colorful, and contemporary. But Masters of American Photography has a subdued strength, reflecting the history of photography to which artists practicing the medium today owe a great deal.

American Photography Today and Masters of American Photography will be on exhibit at the Center for the Arts, Towson University through April 5, 2014. Gallery Hours are Tuesday – Saturday, 11 am – 4 pm and the show will be closed for spring break March 16 – March 23. Admission is free and open to the public. More info here.

* Author Liz Donadio is a Baltimore based artist, she teaches in the Photography and Art History departments at Towson University and runs a fine-art digital print studio called Color Wheel.

** Featured Image: Installation photo by Zeke Luman, 2014

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