PICTURE PERFECT: Exhibits Affirm Photography's Status as an Art Form

Article excerpt

As the millennium winds down, five Washington museums examine photography, the art most identified with the 20th century.

The National Gallery of Art shows the haunting images of Hungarian-French photographer Brassai. The Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture surveys a century of African photography with "Revue Noir: Africa by Africans - A Photographic View" at its Arts and Industries Building Mall location and the photos of southern black photographer P.H. Polk at the Anacostia locale.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art presents New York photographer Annie Leibovitz's depictions of women, and the National Portrait Gallery presents "Tete a Tete: Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson" and images by Augustus Washington, one of the first black daguerreotypists.

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, visitors can see "Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the Twentieth Century."

The exhibitions run through early January, except for the Polk show. That closes Dec. 1.

This is the century in which photography came into its own. Its start usually is traced to Parisian painter-inventor Louis J.M. Daguerre's experiments with optics and chemistry in the late 1830s.

Photography was a powerful new art form from the beginning with mirrorlike daguerreotypes, such as those by Augustus Washington, a successful, free black portrait photographer in Hartford, Conn. Painter and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, in Paris awaiting a French patent for the telegraph, wrote home in 1839 that Daguerre's images were "one of the beauties of the age" and comparable to the etchings of Rembrandt.

Edgar Allan Poe commented in the Alexander's Weekly Messenger of January 1840 that "Photography is the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science . . . [and] would exceed the wildest expectations of the most imaginative."

More emphatically, a critic warned painters about the new medium's arrival in the April 20, 1839, New Yorker, "Drink up your aquafortis and die!" He continued: "Here is a discovery launched upon the world that must make a revolution in art . . . In what way, in what degree, will art be affected by it?"

Of course, this is still the issue that artists - painters and photographers alike - confront years later, especially the artists of these shows.

Through these photographers, we see how the camera shapes the way we see our world and how it has influenced us in complex ways. Photographers use the medium both to record and interpret what they perceive as reality. This is where the widest split in photographic approach occurs.

For example, Miss Leibovitz and the female photographers at the National Museum of Women in the Arts interpret the multifaceted roles and ambitions of today's women. By contrast, the more than 30 photographers of the "Revue Noir" show effectively the use of the documentary method to record the men and women of Africa.

Washington (1820/21-1875), Mr. Polk (1898-1984) and Mr. Cartier-Bresson recorded the prominent people of their times. The three worked mainly in black and white, the best medium for documentary photography, though Washington hand-colored some of his daguerreotypes.

Mr. Cartier-Bresson, who is also a painter, takes documentation a step further than the other two by what he calls "capturing the decisive moment." He knows the exact second when to click the shutter of his camera to seize the essence, and also the mystery, of his subject. He also believes that "portraiture is the one domain which photography has won away from painting."

Brassai (1899-1984), born Gyula Halasz in Brasso, Transylvania, is the most poetic and interpretive of the photographers whose work is exhibited (he changed his name to Brassai, which means "from Brasso").

He rejected classification as a photographer, believing the term too general and open to misinterpretation. …