Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What is a photograph?

Posted By on Tue, Jun 19, 2012 at 10:38 AM

Few art exhibitions today span seamlessly two hundred years.

I considered this at The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently during The Renaissance Portrait, a selection of paintings dated just prior to Leonardo da Vinci’s humanized Mona Lisa of 1504. One hundred years later, Rembrandt perfected the psychological study using his own visage; and one hundred years prior, the portrait, as a genre revealing of its subject, did not exist at all.

Nowhere in modern times is this stylized leap more concise than in photography. With his first exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, curator Russell Lord intertwines technological advancement with style in a clever journey from daguerreotype, singular in its material, history and imagery, to the digital code behind modern photography, where one shot precipitates infinite variety of size, tone and quantity.

Russell Lord, Freeman Family Curator of Photographs at the New Orleans Museum of Art
  • Judy Cooper
  • Russell Lord, Freeman Family Curator of Photographs at the New Orleans Museum of Art


(Above: Renowned photographer Judy Cooper captures Curator of Photography Russell Lord within What is a Photograph?, on view through August 19, 2012 at the New Orleans Museum of Art; in addition to NOMA’s exhibition, check out Cooper’s latest projects, previewed at this link-)

Lord arrived at NOMA last fall, fresh from the rich and vast influences of his fellowship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where exhibitions such as The Renaissance Portrait encourage art history in the broader sense.

Most remarkable is that Lord compiled What is a Photograph? primarily from NOMA’s permanent collection, one of the finest museum photography collections in the country. In addition, he recognized the importance of supplementing the exhibition with gems from The Historic New Orleans Collection, such as an Untitled Color Experiment by famed New Orleans photographer, Clarence John Laughlin (1905-1985).

Photo by Clarence John Laughlin. Copyright The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1981.247.2.40; a dye transfer drawing, circa 1944

“In this enigmatic work,” writes Lord, “Laughlin uses the materials of the color dye transfer process in some way (probably by carefully manipulating the dyes as they diffuse into the paper) to create abstract gestural images on color photographic paper. The result…is part drawing, part photograph...”

Famous for experimenting within his photography, Laughlin broke ground with his surreal imagery and double-exposures.

“The magic of photography is when you change the meaning of the object – the ordinary meaning of the object – into a meaning that you yourself create.” –CJL*

Laughlin, who considered himself as much writer as photographer, put this sentiment into words; yet these altered meanings exist from the beginning of the medium and, as a result, constitute a running theme in the NOMA exhibition. Consider, for instance, a family portrait staged within a boat.

Unidentified American photographer.  Untitled (portrait of a family in a studio prop boat), c. 1885, hand-colored tintype, anon gift 2012; Note the lightly reddened cheeks-
  • New Orleans Museum of Art
  • Unidentified American photographer. Untitled (portrait of a family in a studio prop boat), c. 1885, hand-colored tintype, anon gift 2012; Note the lightly reddened cheeks-

“In this humorous example,” explains Lord, “a family poses for their portrait indoors with studio props and a contrived backdrop intended to make them appear to be enjoying a leisurely outing in a boat.”

The photograph reminds me of an early painting by George Rodrigue, John Courrege’s Pirogue. I’ve known the image for years; however, it wasn’t until the NOMA photograph that I learned that it too originated with a family photo staged within a dry-ground boat, a trend, apparently, within late 19th and early 20th century photography. (See the essay, “Landlocked Pirogues and Blue Dog’s Eyes.”)

George Rodrigue. John Courreges Pirogue. 1973, oil on canvas, 36x42 inches
  • George Rodrigue
  • George Rodrigue. John Courrege's Pirogue. 1973, oil on canvas, 36x42 inches

Also within this exhibition, Lord poses, without specifically stating the question, the digital photography debate. Clearly a fan of photography in all its manifestations, he links closely, to great effect, the medium’s stylistic trends with its technological improvements. This is hardly the case in painting, when one considers the relatively minor shift of tempera paint on wood, as in the Renaissance portraits, to oil paint on canvas, as in John Courrege’s Pirogue, executed some 500 years later.

In photography, it is possible for one artist to live through advancements so significant that one began, as in the case of Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916), by strapping a “mammoth plate” camera to a mule and, by the early 20th century, carried a 35mm camera in the backseat of one’s car. For that matter, consider the camera you may have used as a child compared to the one built into your cell phone today. Consider the recent bankruptcy of Eastman Kodak Co.

Carleton E. Watkins. 1867 “Rooster Rock, Columbia River,” albumen print, 18x22, gift of Dr. James Pierce
  • New Orleans Museum of Art
  • Carleton E. Watkins. 1867 “Rooster Rock, Columbia River,” albumen print, 18x22, gift of Dr. James Pierce

“I have opened the doors to the world that we know,” wrote Clarence John Laughlin* just prior to his death in 1985 and, remarkably, just prior to the onset of digital photography, “and I have found a world so fantastic, so incredible, that it constitutes a new mode of existence, a new mode of reality. The fused magma of reality created a fairy tale world which had the scent and texture of melted dreams, and the hues of soluble visions.”

Immersed in this unpredictable, transformative trend, Russell Lord and NOMA might well present What is a Photograph?, Part 2 within the decade.

Wendy Rodrigue

*quoted within Clarence John Laughlin: An Artist with a Camera, Michael Murphy Productions, 2009

-For related essays see “The Human in the Painting” and “Landlocked Pirogues & Blue Dog’s Eyes (The Art of Improvisation),” both from “Musings of an Artist’s Wife

-For more art and discussion with Wendy Rodrigue, join her on facebook

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