Friday, March 1, 2013
Exhibition at Amon Carter proves that photos belong in art museums
You really have to see it in person.
FORT WORTH Big Pictures at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art sees the forest and the trees. The photo exhibition is an excellently-curated experience that juxtaposes pieces from three centuries while also telling a cohesive story about large-scale photography as an art movement.
Because scale is so significant to the exhibition’s thesis, Big Pictures can only be fully appreciated in person. The collection winds through an upstairs gallery, presenting 40 diverse large-scale photographs by a number of artists, each emphasizing distinct techniques, subjects, and aesthetic perspectives. The exhibition’s curator – the museum’s Luce Curatorial Fellow for Photographs, Katherine Siegwarth – built Big Pictures upon a precise foundational narrative that delves into the history of large-scale photography. It reaches back as far as the medium itself, then plunges through contemporary efforts and ends with glimpses of where the movement is heading.
While technology had not yet progressed in a way that made enlargement possible in the 19th century, photographers like William Henry Jackson produced fascinating large-scale achievements by splicing multiple “mammoth plate” prints together. The points of convergence are so barely perceptible that lay-viewers likely would never notice where they come together. Jackson’s “Excursion Train. Lewiston Branch. N.Y.C. RR” (1890), for instance, consists of three separate photographs. Such early efforts were largely commercial, taken to intrigue potential tourists and travel consumers. However, as photography increasingly became viewed as an artistic endeavor rather than technologic novelty, 20th century photographers saw large-scale prints as a viable method for competing for museum wall space among paintings.
This history is critical in understanding why Big Pictures works so well. The evolution from novelty and commercial endeavor to a loud and large statement of artistic value – a “gasp” effect emphasized by photographers like Ansel Adams who used the method to produce a sense of grandeur comparable to centuries-old artistic methods and mediums – opened the door for today’s movement, which not only demands a viewer’s attention with a perceptible “wow” moment, but also uses size to, as Siegwarth puts it, “prolong the gaze.”
Contemporary large-scale photography overwhelms viewers with disorienting detail. For instance, a viewer initially notices only a brilliant blue sky and the whimsical swirls of dead trees before noticing the ominous true subject of Luther Smith's "Dead Horses, grassfire near Carbon, Texas" (2006) – or utilizes unusual angles to create a sense of urgent intimacy like in Laura McPhee’s “Understory Flareups, Fourth of July Creek, Valley Road Wild Fire, Custer County, Idaho” (2005).
Others produce visceral emotional responses, like Richard Misrach’s breathtakingly beautiful "Untitled #394-03" (part of the artist's "On the Beach" series, 2003), which, by eschewing a horizon, instills an anxiety through an ineffable sense of lost control. These innovative techniques create an active viewership that is engaging, stimulating, and at times mesmerizing. If ever there were a question as to whether photography belongs in art museums, the modern large-scale movement indelibly seals its place there, and that could be no more evident than in the Amon Carter’s well-mapped and thoughtful presentation of Big Pictures.
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