Late Exposure for Pioneers of Photography

By Gloria Goodale writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

Late Exposure for Pioneers of Photography


Gloria Goodale writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Los Angeles may mean movies to most people, but at the moment the town's major museums are overflowing with celluloid's predecessor, the photograph.

In a happy coincidence, nearly every major museum in town has a show examining some aspect of the still image, from its birth more than 160 years ago up to the present day. Like a giant Muybridge motion study photo, this close-up snapshot is an unprecedented opportunity to understand where photography came from and where it is going.

"Now that the era of the digital image is here, photography is going back to drawing and painting, which is where its roots are to begin with," says painter David Hockney, who also has used photography extensively.

The Getty Museum's 20th anniversary celebration of what most critics regard as the single most important assemblage of photographs in the world, particularly early works, provides a comprehensive backdrop for the city-wide dialogue. Compiled from some 100,000 images, "Photographers of Genius at the Getty" showcases the collection, which includes historical artifacts such as the enormous Mammoth Plate camera. In an age of cameras small as a grain of rice, this box that dwarfs a grown man is a reminder of how far technology has come.

The exhibition showcases 38 of the collection's most influential pioneers dating from the late 1830s to the late 1960s. To be included, the photographer had to be ahead of the times, says curator Weston Naef, "and have had a measurable impact beyond their own times." This last point is important, he says, "because photography is an art of sequence, with each one begetting another."

The show begins with the age of the daguerreotype as well as the first film negative. Some of the earliest images, such as the Cyanotype photogram of plant specimens (1842) and the salt print stylized portrait, "Mrs. Elizabeth (Johnstone) Hall" (1846) reveal both the scientific and artistic interests of the early inventors. As the show progresses, it's clear that these explorers were pushing the technical limits of this new medium as quickly as they could, and learned (or stole) from one another.

It's also clear that even the earliest practitioners regarded the new medium as a tool to manipulate visual reality, as well as record it. By the 1850s, new techniques such as the Calotype, which captured light more accurately, allowed photographers to be both more skillful and artistic. …

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