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Photo Exhibit reviews

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by , 01-05-2009 at 11:11 AM (1023 Views)
Over the New Year's holiday, I took some time on New Years' Day to indulge in an annual tradition I keep - spending a few hours touring exhibits at the Smithsonian. This year, I took in five different photography shows at the National Portrait Gallery - Portraits by Matthew Brady, The Photograph as Jewelry, The Mask of Lincoln, Women in Photographs, and a display of contemporary work in the collection.

The Brady Portraits were fascinating - almost all of them were carte de visite size. Seeing such small photographs gives a new insight into his working methodology and his use of "camera operators" in his studio. Matthew Brady had a degenerative eye disease that made it progressively harder and harder for him to see such a small ground glass screen. It also says something about the man in that only a few of the images coming out of his studio are credited to the "camera operators" working for him. I didn't realize that the majority of the output of his studio was carte de visites, because most of his work I had been exposed to was his civil war documentary work, which is usually reproduced in coffee-table sized books, or at least 8x11 glossy magazines. In any case, it was a fascinating tour through 19th century American society. Mostly actors, performers, and politicians are displayed, from John Barrymore and Edwin Booth to P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb's Wedding.

The Mask of Lincoln shows photographs of the man through his political career, from early campaign memorabilia up to the last portrait taken of him just a few days before his assassination. The original print of the famous Alexander Gardner "Cracked Negative" portrait is part of the exhibit (normally a 20th century reproduction print is displayed). The photograph that was used to design the Lincoln penny has a featured spot, as well as supporting ephemera like campaign posters and political cartoons as well as two life masks taken of Lincoln's face at the beginning of his first term and shortly before his death. Lincoln was the first president to serve in the photographic age and take advantage of the power of the medium.

The Photograph as Jewelry featured a wide range of photographs fashioned into jewelry of all kinds, from pins and lockets to hair bands, bracelets and rings. Most of the images were daguerreotypes, with a few tintypes mixed in. Also included was a very rare whole plate daguerreotype, a portrait that depicted a woman wearing photographic jewelry. This was not uncommon, with a number of portraits of women in the exhibit showed them with other photographs in the image.

Women in Photographs featured images spanning over a hundred year period, from Alice Paul to Susan Sontag. Amelia Earhart was there, in the nose cone of her plane, along with a color portrait of a very young Shirley Temple, and on the adjacent wall, Joan Baez. This last juxtaposition was rather humorously ironic for me, as Shirley Temple Black (her married name) is a conservative politician, and Joan Baez is still a liberal activist. They also live just a few doors down from each other in Woodside, California.

I don't remember the photographers shown in the contemporary selection from the permanent collection for the most part, except for Alec Soth. They had excerpts from his Niagra series, along with a lot of celebrity portraits by other photographers, many in color, most printed very large.

All in all, it was very heartening to see the breadth and depth of the photographic collections at the NPG. Until relatively recently, photography was very much an afterthought in the Smithsonian collections, with emphasis placed on European painters. If you have the opportunity to get downtown Washington DC, I highly recommend adding the National Portrait Gallery/Museum of American Art to your agenda, as they are often overlooked and overshadowed by the National Gallery of Art and its cousins on the Mall.




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