With the Eastman collection at the Speed, a national convention and the Photo Biennial, Louisville is all about photography
Her face is a map of her world, lined from a life of hard work and poverty. At 32 years old, migrant worker Florence Thompson allowed Dorothea Lange to take multiple photographs of her with three (in one shot, four) of her seven children. Lange, who was working for the federal government’s Farm Security Administration, ventured closer and closer until she got the one she wanted.
The resulting image, “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California,” quickly became one of the iconic images of the 1930s, distributed free of charge to magazines, newspapers and books. Thompson’s expression, akin to the “Mona Lisa” smile, still has viewers guessing at what she is thinking. It is her obvious suffering, offset by her strength and dignity, that draws people in.
“Migrant Mother” is but one of the hundreds of photographs being exhibited around Louisville this summer: The Speed Art Museum hosts “The Best of Photography and Film from the George Eastman House Collection,” which includes more than 200 photographs and film images; local galleries present the 2007 Louisville Photo Biennial, a six-week collection of events that includes gallery shows; and the city welcomes a national photography conference.
Most of this has come together this summer because of the behind-the-scenes string-pulling of Louisville’s own photographic Wizard of Oz, Paul Paletti, a photography expert and gallery owner who began collecting photography during college. His collecting habit became a full-blown passion in 1989, but it wasn’t until 2001 that Paletti went public, so to speak. His law firm, Sturm, Paletti & Wilson, bought a building at 713 E. Market St. His partners liked the idea of showcasing photography in the new space, so they hung Paletti’s ever-growing collection throughout the offices. Paletti established that space as a self-titled gallery, which is the only art photography gallery in Kentucky. The gallery at the front of the building operates as a temporary exhibition space that is open to the public.
“I want to show people in Louisville world-class photography,” he explains. “And to show local photographers actual prints, not those from books or slides.”
Paletti is also a strong advocate of another sort, pressing for more appreciation and recognition of photography throughout the community. That role led Speed Art Museum director Peter Morrin to call on Paletti a few years ago to discuss photography. Morrin had spoken to representatives of the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., in 1999, during a conference of the American Association of Museums, and had intermittent contact with the institution during the proceeding years. With Morrin asking his consult, Paletti made the case for the Speed to stage an exhibit about the history of photography. Paletti recommended the Speed contact several museums with superb collections, such as the Eastman House, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.
The Speed contacted the Eastman again in May 2006, and learned that it had a historical “greatest hits” collection organized and available. Thus, “The Best of Photography and Film” entered into its 2007 exhibition schedule.
The local angle
As a historical show, the Speed exhibition complements the various, varied and largely contemporary works exhibited in 26 local galleries during the Louisville Photo Biennial. Four galleries — the Erin Devine Gallery (which later became Pyro Gallery), galerie hertz, Swanson Cralle East Market (now Swanson Reed Contemporary) and Zephyr Gallery — initiated the shows in 1999, with the intent of providing the city and local artists working in photography with a platform to highlight contemporary photography and encourage sales of photographic art. The Biennial’s second staging included five exhibitions — the addition was one mounted by Paletti. This, the fifth staging, is the most extensive Biennial yet, featuring wide-ranging styles of photography and subject matter.
Bill Carner, library specialist at the University of Louisville’s Photographic Archives (a depository of historic commercial and photojournalistic photographs), is enthusiastic about the images he has seen from several of the exhibitions.
“Lori Beck, Hallie Jones and Aron Conaway are curating a show, ‘T’What?’
, that knocked my socks off when I saw the JPEGS. I can’t wait to see it on the walls of Gallery NuLu,” says Carner. “After watching them scan their negatives at my place … I want to see Aron and Hallie’s own show, ‘The Uninviting’
, at the Mellwood Arts & Entertainment Center for sure.”
Work by former Louisvillian Richard Bram, in the exhibition “X & Y Axes: Panoramic Street Photography” at galerie hertz, gets Carner’s nod, too, as does that of Eastern Kentuckian Shelby Lee Adams.
Bring on the convention
All of these exhibitions will be on display around Louisville during View Camera Magazine’s annual large-format convention, which will bring about 250 photographers to Louisville June 28-July 1. These photographers work with large-format tripod-mounted view cameras that require the user to look at inverted images under a darkcloth. The cameras are able to produce negatives from 4-by-5 inches up to 20-by-24 inches. The public can see work by some of the attendees at the Gallery at the Brown exhibition during the conference at the Brown Hotel.
Not surprisingly, Paletti also had a hand in landing the convention. In June of last year, he attended the 2006 View Camera gathering in Rockford, Ill., and pitched the idea of tying their 2007 conference to Louisville’s Photo Biennial, an idea he hadn’t thought of until then.
When all the pieces — the Speed’s exhibition, the Biennial and the convention — fall into place this summer, Louisville will hit a trifecta in photography.
“We’re turning Louisville into photo town for about a month,” Paletti says with a big, if slightly tired, grin.
The one-time interloper on the art world
The beginnings of photography can be traced to the earliest copperplate photographs. Called daguerreotypes, (the Eastman show features them from 1839, the year they were first publicized), they were the result of a rather unwieldy, primitive process used to record people, places and things. Photography was not considered art during the 19th century, although some photographers did consider their images as such. Cameras were tall, bulky boxes perched on three legs that were anything but easy and simple to use.
Then George Eastman transformed the business of photography, setting the stage for the art form. His invention of the Kodak hand-held camera, in 1888, meant people could be do-it-yourselfers, taking “snapshots” of their lives.
The person most responsible for establishing the switch to art, however, is Alfred Stieglitz. Gallery owner, photography magazine editor and Photo-Secession member (a group of photographers whose mission was to add photography to the fine arts), Stieglitz widened the narrow pigeonhole that photography was stuffed into by proclaiming it art with “The Steerage,” one of the highlights in the Eastman exhibition.
Stieglitz captured the image while sailing to Europe in 1907. Walking around the ship to get away from boring fellow first-class travelers, he saw activity in the wide-open, low-class section of the ship called the steerage, packed full of immigrants who had been refused entry into the United States. The multitude of shapes fascinated him. After composing the scene in his head, Stieglitz captured the image in one take, soon promoting it as art in his gallery and magazine.
Still, it took the world years to accept the idea that photography could be anything other than simple visual recording. Louisville hopped onboard in 1929, with the Speed’s first show, “Exhibition of Daguerreotypes and Pictorial Photography” — it has had 88 photography shows since then. It wasn’t until 1951, though, that the museum bought its first photo, a daguerreotype of Henry Clay.
While the Rochester Institute of Technology offered its first photography course in 1902 and initiated its formal photography program in 1930, it wasn’t until the late ’60s that photography gained a foothold in the curriculum in the University of Louisville’s department of fine arts. That happened when now-retired photography professor Don Anderson, who joined the department in 1970, began teaching photography classes.
“The ‘modern’ age of photo instruction at U of L begins with him,” Carner says. Anderson taught at U of L for more than 30 years. Suzanne Mitchell, another retired photography professor, worked with him.
“U of L has had a photo program longer than most,” says Mitchell, “partly because the Allen R. Hite Art Institute is a special endowment, and mostly because of the creation of the Photo Archives.”
Mitchell and Anderson taught together for 25 years, at a time when very few art photography programs in the nation had more than one instructor.
Current realities of photography
By the close of the 20th century, photography was recognized as an important art form, popular because of its produced feelings of intimacy, a perceived reality and truthfulness that other media seemingly lacks. A nude woman in a painting has the paint to “cover” her, thus distancing the viewer from her nudity; a nude woman in a photograph is just plain naked.
And yet, we also realize photographs can be manipulated. The outcome is a “creative” version of the truth. In her book “Light Matters,” photography critic Vicki Goldberg writes about this dichotomy.
“The reality problem comes up here: the fact that photographs can lie … has become a major preoccupation of society … and of photographers. Photographs lie, fib and mimic reality almost as readily as they record it.”
The writer Susan Sontag, in her book musing “On Photography,” catalogues another reason photography is so well accepted: frozen moments.
“After the event has ended, the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality
it would never otherwise have enjoyed,” Sontag writes. She also asserts that it is “the image world that bids to outlast us all.”
That quality, and the fact that the general body of photography is now so substantial, has solidified photography’s standing in today’s art world. The rise in photography’s acceptance and popularity coincides with the increasing number of photography exhibitions the Speed has housed since the 1980s, featuring work by David Hockney (1989), Ansel Adams (1998), Linda McCartney (2000), David Levinthal (2000) and William Wegman (2001).
As for its permanent collection, Morrin says the Speed does not have a dedicated budget for photography, but does buy some in the larger context of contemporary art.
“Our Works on Paper gallery alternates between photography and prints, and we see the need to have spaces for both in the future after expansion,” he says. “
more artists, better-supported artists, more work and a serious collection of the history of photography for Louisville. The Eastman House show is the beginning of connoisseurship in the medium for Louisville.”
Meanwhile, the market for photography is growing.
“Contemporary photography is bigger than it has ever been; people are paying big bucks for it,” says photographer and graphic designer Julius Friedman. “
buy their photography somewhere else, not in Louisville. Being I am a photographer, I wish people here would support it.”
Both Friedman and Paletti have been frustrated by people proudly telling them about the art they bought in places like Chicago (and the thousands of dollars they spent), only to have been able to buy the same artist’s work in Louisville for less.
Nonetheless, Carner says Louisville has a decent market in art photography. “I don’t think Louisville was slow in picking up on art photography. There have always been a few dedicated collectors in town since I came here in 1977.”
When Friedman exclaims, “What am I most excited to see at the Biennial? Sales of photography at all galleries,” it’s not just wishful thinking.
Today we understand that photography functions as both art and technology, and that frees contemporary artists to dip into the latest photographic and film science. Digital images have certainly found their way out of the commercial realm into fine art. Works by U of L professor Mitch Eckert are a good example. His show with Ross McNary, “Domestic I: New Works” at the 930 Art Center, is full of digital images on the theme of “nesting.”
“For all the bad it does for promoting the ‘big-headed’ amateur, Photoshop is the most fascinating software tool of the present and future,” Louisville photographer Sara Robinette says. “Not so much for its ability to ‘fix’ poorly shot photos, but for the few that are able to truly master this program. And from the introduction of such a tool, we are seeing a rapid change in the direction of future art photography, in unexpected ways. It’s not all sci-fi, super-altered imagery. From this surge of digital technology, there has been a huge reaction from the traditional technicians and a growing desire for simple imagery.”
A typical move for modern media, Paletti posed recently for a digital photograph aside his original print of the iconic 1985 National Geographic cover shot of Sharbat Gula, commonly known as the “Afghan Girl,” in his firm’s law offices. The session was a quiet representative of a confluence of forms: Photography as a tool to supplement this newspaper article; photojournalism, as a document preserving a particular person and her struggles; and photography as fine art, an accidental masterwork of a one-time interloper on the art world.
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