Although the University’s Museum of Art is set to close its doors for a massive renovation project this summer, the exhibit “Rethinking the Photographic Image: the Best of Photography from the George Eastman House Collection,” running through June 25, offers one last dose of good art before the digging begins.

Intended as a retrospective on the development of photography as an artistic medium, the exhibit – specifically on the second floor – instead reads as a timeline of American culture. The lack of any substantial work by foreign artists prevents a full understanding of photography’s growth as it relates to other cultures.

That being said, the museum’s ground floor houses a provocative series of photographs by contemporary British artist Andy Lock. “Orchard Park” is a series of social-realist images of British projects that belie its pastoral title. The process by which the images are produced is the series’s most interesting aspect. Thirty-five millimeter slides are projected onto a canvas layered with luminous green paint. As the highly unbalanced materials began to fade and warp, the canvases themselves are rephotographed, “capturing” the photos’ degradation.

The end result is disconcerting. The alien-green backgrounds and impossibly dark shadows envelope an array of simple objects (e.g. a chair, a bundle of rags and windows), and take the context from an objective social critique into a geometrically abstract vision. There is a distinct feeling of isolation in Lock’s images, but the viewer is left to draw her own conclusions.

The second floor, though, is where the bulk of the exhibit’s weight lies. Its introductory text promises the viewer that the following exhibit grandly encompasses the breadth of photography’s evolution.

The first prints start off on the right foot. Several early photographic procedures are well documented and enlightening, even if their subject matter – namely portraiture – can get a little redundant. The exhibit moves into the era of the American Civil War, explaining how photographic images were manipulated as early as 1860. After a disappointing single image from Matthew Brady, the works begin to reflect an industrialized America and the deepening divide between the rich and the poor. Artists started applying the aesthetics of painting to the lens, as well as further exploiting the camera’s potential for social criticism – much like the 2005 Walker Evans and James Agee exhibit.

By the time the viewer moves through iconic World War II images – including a Robert Capa print – into the experimentation and abstraction of the ’60s, it’s clear what the viewer is seeing is a progression of American culture as witnessed through photography. The photos of the Vietnam War are no less unnerving 40 years after their creation, and Nicholas Nixon’s documentation of an AIDS victim in the ’80s is heartbreaking with its sense of forboding. Carrie Mae Weem’s racially vitriolic 1987 “Magenta Colored Girl” is immediately followed by images influenced by pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Truth be told, the exhibit’s text weaving alongside the various sections is not very helpful. Over and over again it generalizes the achievements of American-based photography as indicative of the medium as a whole. But the images themselves are extraordinary. Whether you heed the text or not, the historical and reflective range of the images is what holds the exhibit together.

Rethinking the Photographic Image
Now through June 25
Free
At UMMA

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