The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
I’ve just come back from seeing Alias Man Ray, an exhibition that opened recently at The Jewish Museum in New York. Man Ray produced work in several media—paintings, photographs, cinema, sculpture—and throughout his career used his art to describe and promote himself as an artist. His even titled his autobiography, Self-Portrait. So I am really interested to read Preminda Jacob’s click! piece about the theatricality of Indian studio photographs, and the fantasies they fulfill and how, in turn, these portraits have influenced the idealized ways celebrities are represented in hand-painted cinema advertisements. Photographs of works of art constitute one of the most seductive of photography’s subjects, perhaps because we enjoy the conceit of photography and art being framed together in such an efficient package. From photography’s beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, the thrill was twofold: paintings were cast into the mirror to make new pictures that could be reflected on in new ways. “Here is a discovery launched upon the world that must make a revolution in art” announced one writer in 1839. “In what way, in what degree, will art be affected by it? If art was of two kinds, the imaginative and the imitative, would photography be able to practice each simultaneously?” In some cases photography has been called on for documentary purposes to make faithful copies of paintings and sculptures for practical reasons, from illustrating catalogues, to filing insurance and tax forms. For more than half of the twentieth century the New York firm of Peter A. Juley & Son photographed the artwork of leading American artists, especially works of art produced by members of the Ashcan School, Robert Henri, George Luks, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, and George Bellows.
Artist studio portraits and artists at work portraits are even more fun. The Archives of American Art has thousands of these portraits. Liza Kirwin, Archives curator of manuscripts, writes that these photographs, “help define an artistic persona,” and at times, “promote a new image of the art and the artist.” In other words, the clothes, the pose, and the objects at hand define the artist, but also tell us what we should be thinking about the art. Artists who pose in their studio surrounded by their work suggest not only that they’ve been busy, but the photograph becomes in itself a retrospective exhibit of their work. Other studios suggest the appropriate context to think about the creative process; some studios are elegant great rooms, others seem to be untidy closets. Some seem to be in a warehouse, others look as though they are the back bedroom. Some portraits of artists, like the 1942 photograph of Blanche Lazzell’s Provincetown studio, don’t picture the artist at all, but let the artwork, layer upon layer of it flattened by the photographic eye, altogether stand in for the artist.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
In a world where we’re constantly inundated by disturbing imagery of environmental destruction, what kind of image still has the power to make us stop and think, to be moved into action, to sear itself into our consciousness? This is precisely the question that visitor contributor, Elizabeth Rose, addresses in a recent click! story.
For Elizabeth and many others, nature photographer and lecturer Michael Nolan’s photograph, Mother Nature in Tears, has been precisely the kind of image that pierces emotions. Incidentally, this photo which pictures an iceberg with a seemingly human face crying, has inspired many but has also stirred up ire in many members of the public who insist that Nolan’s image is a fake.
What follows are excerpts of a post by Nolan on his blog reputing the notion that his image was fabricated in any way:
“Sometimes an image just seems to be too good to true! The image above has caused quite a stir around the world in so many ways. When I took the image early in the morning on July 16, 2009 from the bow of the National Geographic Explorer I was struck by the unmistakable likeness of the face of a woman crying ….
The image was picked up by one of my best stock agencies in the U.K. and the face was likened to Mother Nature. I loved the stylized look of the waterfall as it formed the pool of tears, and think it is strikingly similar to what a thoughtful yet mournful Mother Nature might appear to look like, and what better place to appear than on the face of the largest (by area) retreating ice cap in all of Europe?
Of course folks on one side of the climate change issue took it as a sign, while folks on the other side of this same issue were sure the image was fabricated. "Photoshop Experts" started weighing in on how the image was manipulated or downright faked all together. From my perspective as the photographer who took the image I am amazed at what strong sentiments this image has provoked, and the ensuing attacks on the authenticity of the face ….
Is this Mother Nature in Tears? If you want it to be then I say absolutely!
Is it a sign of climate change? Of course, the ice cap is retreating and has been for many years now.
Is this a beautiful stylized look of a woman's face in the Austfonna ice cap? This thought is exactly what moved me to create the image.
Was the image fabricated, manipulated, altered, or down right faked? Absolutely not ….
I encourage everyone to go and experience Mother Nature for themselves, wherever (and however) you can find her! Perhaps she will change your life, as she has changed mine. I have hope for even the most ardent unbelievers. The beauty is all around you, you just have to open your eyes (and heart).”
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