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FROM THIS EPISODE

Photography as practiced today is often self-conscious of its parvenu status as art. For several decades, artists working with photographic techniques have been at pains to separate themselves from the history of photography as it was presented for much of the twentieth century.

To gain additional perspective, it is useful to step back in time and that is abundantly possible in an exhibition at LACMA that provides an overview of that history of the medium: See the Light -- Photography, Perception, Cognition: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection. The 220 works by 150 artists are drawn from the more than 3,600 photographs that the couple amassed.

 

at131205a.jpg
Jaroslav Rossler, "Still Life with Small Bowl," 1923
Gelatin silver print, 8 7/8 x 9 3/8 in. (22.54 x 23.81 cm)
The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection
Gift of the Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin
© Sylva Vítová-Rösslerová


The Vernons bought their first photograph by Edward Weston from the Weston gallery in Carmel in the 1970's. Leonard Vernon, a real estate developer, also practiced photography and developed a fascination with the technical challenges of the medium. After he and his wife had passed away, their collection was acquired by LACMA in 2008.

Thanks to the depth and range of this collection, curator Britt Salvesen is able to tell a complex and convincing story about the technical, scientific and aesthetic evolution of photography.

 

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Charles Harbutt, "Triptych," (1978, printed 1978)
Gelatin-silver print, 8 x 12 in.
The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection
Gift of the Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin
Copyright © by Charles Harbutt. All rights reserved
Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery; Photo © 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA


Salvesen traces the ways in which photographers explored the transformation of sensitized glass or paper into pictures using lenses and light. A timeline and didactics on the walls chronicle discoveries in the fields of optics and experimental psychology. A valid approach, especially as changing technology continues to affect the medium. But the real charm of this exhibition is in the quality of the images themselves. So many of the photographs on view are exceptional without being a parade of greatest hits.

The very first group of photographs at the entrance to the show is an example: Articles of China by William Henry Fox Talbot (1843), Glass and Shadows by Adolph de Meyer (1900), Camera Lenses by Piet Zwart (1930) and Still Life with Peas by Jan Groover (1984). All are black and white and modest in scale, as are most of the works in the show, and definitely act as testimony to the artists' relationship to light and shadow. They are meant to manifest the curator's four categorical themes concerning the scientific and psychological evolution of the medium.

 

at131205c.jpg
Frederick H. Evans, "A Sea of Steps--Wells Cathedral," 1903
Platinum print, 9 x 7 1/4 in. (22.86 x 18.44 cm)
The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection
Gift of the Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin
© Frederick H. Evnas, courtesy Janet B. Stenner


Landscapes, nudes, architecture, still life, all the genres are all present in this show but there are some exciting juxtapositions: Evelyn Hofer's monumental The Duomo, Florence from 1958, published in Mary McCarthy's The Stones of Florence, is remarkably similar to the composition of Enrico Van Lint's tiny 1930 photograph, Lake City Bank, Indiana by Walker Evans, and an even tinier 1984 photograph of a house in New York City by Judy Fiskin are clear companions.

 

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Berenice Abbott, "Magnetic Field" (1940 circa, printed 1940 circa)
Gelatin-silver print, image: 13 1/2 x 10 in. (34.29 x 25.4 cm)
The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection
Gift of the Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin


Frederick H. Evans' 1903 A Sea of Steps-Wells Cathedral is both architectural and abstract and could belong in the particularly relevant section devoted to Experimental Modernism. Berenice Abbott's 1958 swirling patterns demonstrating Magnetism and Electricity a 1980 Leland Rice photograph of a yellow painting in Peter Lodato's studio, Wall Site.

Apart from this exhibition but installed in the adjacent gallery, there are the recent mesmerizing films of the Yorkshire countryside by David Hockney, who has long investigated the use of optical devices of all sorts in his art.

Frederick Fisher and Partners created the installation, allowing the pictures room to breath.

The show continues through March 23, 2014, but this is the last weekend to see other exhibitions of photographs by John Divola and the Vanity Fair portraits of Edward Steichen. For more information, go to lacma.org.


Banner image: Detail of Frederick H. Evans' A Sea of Steps--Wells Cathedral, 1903

See the Light

Britt Salvesen

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